By: Curtis Jackson
Four teams will carry an additional overseas player on their practice squads during the 2017 season as part of a new International Player Pathway program, the NFL announced today.
Teams from the NFC South division will each be given an exemption for an eleventh practice squad member – ineligible to be activated during the season – with three of the players selected coming from the UK and one from Germany. The NFC South was chosen to receive the international players in a random draw.
The players include former England rugby star Alex Gray (who will join the Atlanta Falcons); recent college players Alex Jenkins (New Orleans Saints) and Eric Nzeocha (Tampa Bay Buccaneers); and defensive end Efe Obada (Carolina Panthers), who was originally signed by the Dallas Cowboys in 2015.
For the past three months, the players have been training alongside NFL players and draft hopefuls in Florida, under the supervision of two-time Super Bowl winner Osi Umenyiora and NFLUK head of football development, Aden Durde.
“This is going to change people’s lives,” said Umenyiora. “They have a great opportunity. They are going to be seen not only by their new teams but by everyone who might imagine they can be NFL players. They will inspire people around the globe; people who never thought they had a chance to make it to the NFL. Now they see they have a viable pathway. These guys have worked very hard for this chance and I am confident they will make a great contribution to their teams while improving their skills and understanding of the game.”
“This is an important part of the league’s overall strategy to grow internationally,” said NFL Executive Vice President of International & Events Mark Waller. “We are building this pathway program to provide international athletes with the opportunity to play in the league, which will increase the pool of talent, inspire others and ultimately drive fan growth.”
ALEX GRAY, Tight End (UK), Age: 26 – 6’4″ 231 pounds – Atlanta Falcons
Born and raised in Bishop Auckland, England, Gray captained England’s rugby teams at Under-16, Under-18, Under-20 and International Sevens levels and played for Newcastle Falcons and London Irish. He was named in the original extended Great Britain Sevens squad for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, before suffering an injury. He signed for Yorkshire Carnegie for the 2016-17 rugby season and recently decided to convert to American football.
“I have been working hard for this goal and to be told it was going to happen was an amazing moment,” he said. “This is the start of another journey. It is a fantastic thing that is happening, but I am not going to get to where I want to be without keeping myself grounded. Making the decision to give this my all from rugby, there was a big transition period and it was mentally very humbling. When you have to start from scratch again, that was a huge mental battle for me. When I look back I will be very proud of the way I approached this.’