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.
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."
The four players taking part in the 2017 International Player Pathway Program are:
Alex Gray, Tight End (UK), Age: 26 – 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.'
Alex Jenkins, Defensive End (UK), Age: 24 – New Orleans Saints
Born and raised in Bath, England, he began playing football at the Bath City Academy and for the Bristol Aztecs, earning a spot on the Great Britain youth team. Having been selected to participate in an all-star high school camp in Virginia, he earned a scholarship to play college football at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas. He was a three-year starter as defensive end at UIW, posting 3.5 sacks in his senior year.
"This is a chance to develop and become a player in the NFL," Jenkins said. "It has been a pretty intense time. 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. The fact that the Saints will be playing in London this season [vs Miami Dolphins at Wembley Stadium on October 1] makes it even more exciting for me."
Eric Nzeocha, Linebacker (Germany), Age: 24 – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Nzeocha began playing football for the Franken Knights youth team in Neusitz, Germany, and was selected for the German national junior team. He played three years at the University of Wyoming, switching from tight end to linebacker before the 2015 season. His brother, Mark, is a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys.
"It is overwhelming, one of the greatest moments of my life," said Nzeocha when hearing the news of his placement. "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."
Efe Obada, Defensive End (UK), Age: 25 – Carolina Panthers
Raised in London after arriving from the Netherlands at age 10, Obada signed as a free agent for the Dallas Cowboys in 2015 after playing only five games of amateur football with the London Warriors. He played in the preseason for the Cowboys and spent part of the 2015 season on the club's practice squad. He has since had spells on the rosters of the Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons.
"I am very happy and excited about the opportunity," he said. "I feel like this is something I need to progress and further my career. I am very grateful to the guys who have worked with us and put their neck on the lines for us. It's a chance to develop my skills and it is going to be nice to be in that NFL environment again."