The NFL’s International Player Pathway Program has given four international players the opportunity to join four separate NFL teams this off-season in a bid to expand the game.
The NFC South has been chosen in a random lottery to take on the international players, with the Buccaneers, Panthers, Falcons and Saints all being granted one extra practice squad spot which can’t be activated during the regular season.
It will allow each player to spend a whole season working out with some of the NFL’s best players.
TE Alex Gray, DE Alex Jenkins and DE Efe Obada all hail from the UK, while LB Eric Nzeocha is from Germany.
Gray and Jenkins, both former Rugby Union players, will join the Falcons and Saints respectively, while Obada – who originally signed with the Cowboys in 2015 and has since spent time with the Chiefs and Falcons – will sign with the Panthers.
The 24-year-old German Nzeocha, whose brother plays for the Cowboys, will link up with Bucs.
On signing for the Falcons, Gray 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.”
Jenkins also echoed that, saying: “It feels too good to be true. I always thought I would be trying to do this on my own until NFL International found me.”
Obada added: “I am very grateful to the guys who have worked with us and put their neck on the lines for us.”
On earning the opportunity of a lifetime, Nzeocha said: “It is overwhelming, one of the greatest moments of my life.
“It has been my dream since I started playing football at the age of 14. When they told me this was happening I was overwhelmed.
“I am looking forward to it so much. It’s unreal.”
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 NFL UK head of football development, Aden Durde.
“This 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 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.”
Mark Waller, NFL Executive Vice-President of International, said: “This is an important part of the league’s overall strategy to grow internationally.
“We are building this pathway program in order to provide international athletes with the opportunity to play in the league, which will increase the pool of talent, develop heroes who can inspire others and drive fan growth.”