Rugby star Louis Rees-Zammit needs a minor miracle to make it in the NFL

<span>Photograph: Stéphanie Lecocq/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Stéphanie Lecocq/Reuters

Louis Rees-Zammit is the latest rugby player to turn his talents to the NFL. He follows in the path of Jarryd Hayne and Christian Wade, two former internationals who exited rugby at or near their prime to dabble with American football.

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Rees-Zammit announced on Tuesday that he would be leaving Wales before the Six Nations to join the NFL’s international player pathway Program (IPPP), a 10-week initiative that gives athletes from around the world a chance to earn a spot on an NFL roster.

The number of overseas players in the NFL has steadily grown in recent years. We’ve had a Scottish punter, Australian linemen and an English pass-rusher, all of whom, like Rees-Zammit, had limited exposure to the sport before reaching the highest level.

Still Rees-Zammit’s odds of making the league, in the kindest reading, are long – very few IPPP players have gone on to meaningful careers in the NFL. In rugby, he’s a dynamic athlete. In the NFL, he’s just another fast, 6ft 2in, 200lb player in a sport that churns out hundreds of them every year from elite college programs. It is a league where the people whose job it is to throw the ball can do this when asked to run:

Or this:

It’s not that Rees-Zammit isn’t an excellent athlete, it’s the fact that he’s competing against hundreds of other excellent athletes, who have been playing – and learning the nuances of – a complex sport for years. Standing out in that ecosystem is tough. Even tougher: getting to grips with the complexities of a specific position or a team’s playbook.

There are typically thousands of plays in an NFL playbook. The Rams’ famed 2001 playbook, of the Greatest Show on Turf fame, had upwards of 3,000 individual calls. And every play comes drenched with subtleties for each position – a simple passing route can have hundreds of different alterations.

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It is a league where athleticism grants you access and an in-depth understanding of the game earns you playing time.

Given those constraints, just figuring out what position Rees-Zammit will play is tough. Ten years ago, he would have a shot of making a team as a kick returner, someone who could sprint around in the open field without needing to come to terms with the full playbook. But as the league has slowly legislated kickoff returns out of the game due to concerns around player safety, returners are now bit-part players.

Taking up the sport at 22 makes it tricky to picture Rees-Zammit playing on defense, either. NFL defenses are incredibly complex. A single defensive coverage in the Kansas City Chiefs’ playbook has 650 different variations. It can take 10-plus years for a player to figure out what’s going on pre-snap let alone figure out where to be and what to do once the ball is in play. The brightest stars in the college game can often fizzle out once they get to the pros due to their limitations in grasping the details of an NFL scheme. The IPPP has had success producing pass-rushers, but Rees-Zamit is too small to fill that role.

Typically when players have converted to the league, they’ve played on offense, where the players have the advantage of (kind of) knowing where the ball is going before it’s snapped. Running back is often the position that cross-sport stars are afforded opportunities. Hayne made the switch from rugby to the NFL back in 2015. He was given a shot in San Francisco at running back and return specialist before bouncing around a couple of practice squads.

Wade made the same switch. At a bulky 5ft 9in with jets in his feet, he had the archetypal build for a running back. He was short (for the NFL), thickly built and explosive. Two plays into his first preseason game, it looked like teams could be on to something with the whole rugby-convert thing. Wade took a rudimentary hand-off from his quarterback, stuck his foot in the ground and exploded into daylight.

But Wade’s run was emblematic of the sport-switching problem. Once he broke into the open ground, Wade was every bit the downhill force he was in rugby. But his run was so effective precisely because he didn’t follow the playbook. The defense that tracked his run and hit its traditional marks was wrongfooted. For a one-off highlight, that can work. But snap after snap, it’s a non-starter. Coaches will not abide by a player not following the scheme and opposing defenses would soon figure out how to stop him.

Rees-Zammit will face similar issues regardless of which position he winds up playing. His most likely spot will be at wide receiver. And while the running back position is filled with its intricacies, playing receiver in the NFL is a different world entirely.

It is one of the league’s most technical positions, requiring an undergirding of athleticism but revolving mostly around the nuances of where to run, when to expect the throw from the quarterback and how to adjust to opposing defensive schemes. Making those kinds of reads in real-time is the NFL’s highest art. It calls for second-by-second mapping of 21 other humans in motion – and the brainpower to think one step ahead of them.

The best receivers in the NFL are not always the most athletic, but they’re often the most intelligent. The real stars are the ones that have both. That’s not to say that Rees-Zammit lacks the intelligence to thrive, but his rivals for a roster spot will have been absorbing the complexities of the game for years, putting the Welshman at a distinct disadvantage.

The most successful IPPP candidates to date have played along the offensive or defensive lines. Jordan Mailata played rugby in Australia before turning his attention to American football. The Philadelphia Eagles selected Mailata in the seventh round of the draft in 2018 and he has become one of the finest left tackles in the league.

That Mailata developed into one of the league’s best players at one of its most valuable positions is a minor miracle. But Mailata walked into the Philadelphia locker room with rare traits. At 6ft 8in and 365lbs, he entered the league as one of its largest players. He was also dropped into an offense that harnessed his best abilities and limited his weaknesses. It was clear what he could become, even if the path had rarely been trodden before. Rees-Zammit, on the other hand, does not stand out for his size.

Plus Mailata was 21 years old when he was drafted and spent a couple of seasons slow-cooking in the background, learning his craft, before he earned some game time. Rees-Zammit is nearly 23, old by the standards of NFL rookies.

Make no mistake, what Rees-Zammit is attempting is admirable. Approaching the apex of his powers, he’s walking away from a sport where he’s a star to ride the bus with reserve players in a complex, bruising sport. Even making a franchise’s practice squad – effectively the reserve team – would be a remarkable achievement. He’s giving up a guaranteed income for the opportunity to pick up a practice squad check, a $200,000-a-year salary that is only guaranteed week-to-week; NFL teams are notorious for cutting players they don’t think measure up.

Then again, money doesn’t seem to be the point for the Welshman. “It’s nothing about rugby,” Rees-Zammit told the BBC. “It’s about my ambition to make my dream come true and play in the NFL.”

It may be a distant dream, but if Rees-Zammit succeeds, given the position he is likely to play, he will be a pioneer.