Twenty-two year-old Wales international Louis Rees-Zammit announced on January 16th that he was quitting rugby to join the NFL’s International Player Pathway with the aim of securing an NFL roster spot for next season.
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) January 16, 2024
Readers in the US (which I know will be most of you) would be forgiven for not knowing or caring about this news. It hardly seems like a big deal when the playoffs are ongoing and we witness young QBs become stars and NFC East powerhouses choke like their lives depended on it.
But in the UK and especially in Wales, this is major news. Rees-Zammit’s announcement reflects the growth of the sport in the UK and Europe more widely, which I wrote about ahead of the Colts’ trip to Germany last year. I also expect Rees-Zammit’s decision to ditch international rugby to pursue a career in the NFL will play a significant role in driving the NFL’s ever-growing popularity on this side of the Atlantic.
There of course have been and are British players in the NFL. The ‘Scottish Hammer’ Jamie Gillan is the Punter for the New York Giants and Efe Obada has played Defensive End for multiple franchises, most successfully for the Carolina Panthers. We have even seen ex-international rugby players in the NFL in recent years. Ex-England international Christian Wade played Running Back for the Buffalo Bills. The highlight of his NFL career was this preseason touchdown against the Colts in 2019.
LOOK AT WADE GO! 💨 @ChristianWade3 starting preseason with a B A N G 💥
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) August 9, 2019
The main difference between Rees-Zammit today and Wade back in 2019 is that Wade tried to make it in the NFL after he’d had a long and successful rugby career. At 22, Rees-Zammit is joining the International Player Pathway with the substantial majority of his career still ahead of him.
At this stage, I’d expect Rees-Zammit to be a Wide Receiver in the NFL, as well as playing on Special Teams as a Kick/Punt Returner. He’s not particularly big at 1.91 metres and 98kg, but his real weapon is his speed, which he’s used to great effect to score plenty of tries (similar to touchdowns) for club and country.
Welsh rugby star Louis Rees-Zammit is stepping away from the sport to pursue an NFL career.
The 22-year-old will join the NFL's international player pathway program, making him eligible for this year's NFL Draft.
He has been clocked running 24.2 mph.pic.twitter.com/hdCOeZ3gA1
— Joe Pompliano (@JoePompliano) January 16, 2024
I won’t bore you with too many details, but there are actually two types of rugby. Rugby Union, which is what Rees-Zammit plays and what the USA Rugby team plays. The other is Rugby League, which arguably has more similarities with the NFL (it has more set phases compared to Rugby Union’s more free flowing nature) and is what Jordan Mailata played before joining the NFL so successfully.
New @Eagles pick Jordan Mailata looks like a BEAST in his Rugby League tape 👀💪
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) April 29, 2018
In rugby, Rees-Zammit has primarily played as a wing. There are some similarities but some crucial differences with the Wide Receiver position. Wings tend to be one of their team’s main attacking threats, generally being one of the team’s quickest players and using skills like sidesteps to elude defenders. Unlike Wide Receivers, wings do have significant defensive responsibilities in rugby, but Rees-Zammit’s strength is in his attacking game. One aspect of the wing position in rugby is that it often requires catching deep kicks and running them back, which would make him a strong candidate for Special Teams.
Given the challenge of Rees-Zammit making an NFL roster and earning serious gametime, being a skilled and reliable Special Teams player would also be a great way for Rees-Zammit to hold down a roster spot in future and gain valuable snaps.
If Rees-Zammit does want to be a Wide Receiver in the NFL, he will have to overcome substantial challenges. He’ll be competing for roster spots and game time against prospects who’ve played the sport or years, including players who have enjoyed significant success in College Football. You’d have to assume that those Wide Receivers will have much more refined route running than Rees-Zammit.
Marvin Harrison Jr.
Future ___? pic.twitter.com/a2YZhVX0yb
— RunYourPool (@RunYourPool_) January 11, 2024
However, he should also enjoy some advantages over his more experienced rivals. Rees-Zammit already has several years of experience playing elite, professional sport. Including 31 international caps. Any team that does acquire Rees-Zammit shouldn’t have to worry about his ability to handle pressure, live the life of a professional athlete or realise his athletic potential. That is an underrated advantage in a sport where so many highly ranked draft prospects are busts.
At this stage, I couldn’t tell you whether Rees-Zammit will achieve his dream of being a successful NFL player. It’s an uphill battle for anyone on the International Player Pathway to really leave their mark in the NFL, but I don’t think an elite athlete like Rees-Zammit at such a young stage in their career has ever been through the pathway before.
Louis Rees-Zammit explains his decision to leave rugby union to pursue a career in the NFL.
— BBC Sport Wales (@BBCSportWales) January 16, 2024
It says a lot about the recent growth of the sport in the UK that a 22-year-old like Rees-Zammit can say being an NFL player is a dream of theirs. I’m 29 and it wasn’t until I was 22 that I properly started following the NFL. London games in recent years have shown just how much the game’s popularity continues to go from strength to strength in the UK, but Rees-Zammit’s decision is another illustration of this.
If Rees-Zammit does make it in the NFL, I think he has the potential to take support for the NFL in the UK to another level, especially in Wales. It might even be enough to encourage NFL UK to have Cardiff host a game one year. Rugby is a serious business in the UK, and nowhere more so than in Wales where it holds a particularly important role in its country’s culture. Having a big-name former Welsh rugby international like Rees-Zammit make it in the NFL and returning to the UK to play a game on British soil would capture the attention of a lot of British people who might not currently be NFL fans.
The precedent of an elite, international rugby player leaving their sport to join the NFL at the peak of their career could prompt more international sportsmen from across the UK and across sports to consider making that same leap. Now, I’m certainly not expecting an influx of professional tennis players into the NFL. Rugby after all has the most similarities with the NFL of any major ‘British’ sport. But it may encourage more Rugby players to take the leap. It could even encourage a current or former England footballer to try their luck in the NFL as a kicker, which would be huge for the game here. England’s star striker Harry Kane has expressed his desire to pursue a career as a kicker in the NFL once his football (sorry, soccer) career is over.
Whatever happens next, I wish Louis Rees-Zammit the best of luck in following his dream and certainly look forward to following his journey. That he has made this decision is a testament to the popularity of the NFL in the UK and I hope he’ll be able to contribute to the sport’s continued growth over here.
Update: January 26th, 2024; Louis Rees-Zammit has been practicing with NFL coaches at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.
Rees-Zammit understands that his superstardom across the pond doesn’t gurantee him a shot in the NFL and he’s willing to give it everything he’s got over the next 2 months. Here’s what he had to say about the transition at hand (via WalesOnline):
I have never played the game so it’s going to be very difficult for me at the start. There’s going to be a lot of me watching film and certain plays. That’s going to be the biggest challenge.
There are going to be a lot of different skills but, at the same time, I can improve on what I’ve got already. The quicker I can learn the game, the better for me because then I can show everyone what I can do.
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