Premiership Rugby

Louis Rees-Zammit To The NFL: What's Next For Wales Star, Where He May Play

Louis Rees-Zammit To The NFL: What's Next For Wales Star, Where He May Play

Louis Rees-Zammit is making a huge gamble, but the fame and fortune that may await the Wales star in the NFL — if he makes a team and succeeds — is massive.

Jan 19, 2024 by Briar Napier
Louis Rees-Zammit To The NFL: What's Next For Wales Star, Where He May Play

It takes a huge development in the rugby world to surpass Six Nations squad selection week and the final round of Champions Cup pool stage play, but Louis Rees-Zammit’s shocking announcement this week did just that.

The 22-year-old Wales wing, and one of the brightest young stars in rugby union, revealed recently that he would be leaving his club, Gloucester, to pursue a career in American football, where several before him have tried and failed to build careers in one of the biggest, and most lucrative, competitions of any sport in the world. 

The move made him ineligible for Six Nations selection for Wales — where he was expected to be one of coach Warren Gatland’s top players — as Rees-Zammit now will spend the next couple of months learning the ropes of a sport he’s never played professionally, trying to make it in a league where some of the greatest athletes in the world have been training for the sport for their entire lives.

It’s a huge gamble for Rees-Zammit, who is turning down what looked to be a productive career in rugby for potential fame and fortune, with salaries for NFL players who make a proper squad dwarfing the salaries of even the most well-paid rugby players. But if he succeeds, perhaps a wave of rugby converts inspired by his developments will follow — but that’s a very, very big if.

Can Louis Rees-Zammit make it to the NFL, and what are the odds of him actually suiting up for a team in an actual game? They’re awfully slim, but here’s a look at what’s next, along with other rugby-to-American football converts who have come before him:

What’s Next For Rees-Zammit?

Rees-Zammit’s announcement he would be leaving rugby to give the NFL a crack doesn’t automatically mean that he’ll be signed by a team soon — or even signed at all. 

What he first must go through is the NFL’s International Player Pathway Program (IPPP), an initiative begun by the league in 2017. It aims to give non-American/Canadian athletes with potentially transferable skills from other sports a gateway to a potential roster spot.

Rees-Zammit is a member of the 16-man 2024 IPPP class, as announced by the NFL this week, and will begin training and learning the ropes of the sport this month at IMG Academy in Florida, before having a chance to work out in front of the NFL scouts in March to show off their skills and what they have learned. 

What Must Happen For Rees-Zammit To Make A NFL Squad?

If Rees-Zammit impresses NFL scouts enough to where teams are mulling to take a flyer on him, he may be selected in the NFL Draft in April, though a player to be drafted with no in-game American football experience of any kind is exceptionally rare. 

What’s more likely is that Rees-Zammit, if a team signs him, is picked up as an undrafted free agent, where, in his case as an international player, there are certain roster incentives in place that help his standing and chances to make a team. 

Following training camp (which takes place for every team prior to the NFL season), all 32 NFL teams will have an additional roster spot available on their practice squads for what the league considers an “international player,” under which all IPPP participants qualify as being. 

Clubs are permitted to elevate an international player to their active 53-man roster — the players eligible to play in a given regular-season game — up to three times per season, giving teams extra flexibility to find on-field opportunities for international players. 

In all, 37 international players have been at least signed by NFL squads since the beginning of the IPPP program, but only five have gone on to make active rosters, driving the point home of just how long of odds Rees-Zammit is up against to play in a NFL game.

Have Any Ex-Rugby Players Played In The NFL?

In terms of players who were born and raised outside of the United States and grew up playing no American football, there have been a few who have tried the change — and even fewer have succeeded. 

Australian Colin Scotts was the first foreign-born rugby player to reach the NFL, playing rugby union at schoolboy level for his home country, before being spotted by scouts and earning a college football scholarship to Hawaii, where the defensive tackle parlayed that into a brief NFL career in the late 1980s. 

The most notable player who started (somewhat) with a rugby background was Gary Anderson, who played union in high school in his native South Africa as the son of a professional soccer player and moved to America as a youth, finding an interest in American football. He turned that into a career that saw him finish as one of the game’s greatest kickers of all time, making the NFL’s All-Decade teams for the 1980s and 1990s.

An influx of code switchers began trying their hands at the NFL beginning with the 2010s. 

In naming a couple of examples, Australia-born ex-Saracens lock Hayden Smith spent a year on the New York Jets’ roster as a tight end in 2012, while current Racing 92 wing and England international Christian Wade gave it a go as a running back with the Buffalo Bills from 2019-22, making the team’s practice squad and returning his first in-game carry for a touchdown in a preseason game. 

By far the most successful rugby-to-football code convert (in a non-kicking position) is Jordan Mailata, a former rugby league player at the youth level in Australia who joined the IP and made it into a still-going, successful stint with the Philadelphia Eagles. 

The massive 6-foot-8 former prop for the South Sydney Rabbitohs turned into a starting offensive tackle for the Eagles and is one of the best at his position in the NFL, signing a monstrous $64 million contract with Philadelphia in 2021. 

Rees-Zammit’s Possible NFL Positions

Wide Receiver

Rees-Zammit’s physical intangibles make him an easy, logical fit for wide receiver and catching balls that come his way from quarterbacks, but it’s the intricacies of the position — and how quickly he understands them — that may make or break whether or not he sees the field as a wideout.

Blistering pace and agility, both of which Rees-Zammit obviously possesses, are two of the most important attributes in many successful receivers, and at 6-foot-3, he also would be on the taller end of the spectrum at the position as a player who could use his height to his advantage in aerial battles for balls. 

The best receivers in the world do not just have those attributes, however, but also a deep and complex understanding of other crucial parts of the job, such as route running and creating space and separation away from a defender trained to stop you. 

In addition, receiver-quarterback chemistry and being on the same page is vital; mistakes can and do lead to turnovers, miscues and other errors which stifle an offense’s progress. 

And, of course, actually catching the football and avoiding much-maligned drops on a consistent basis will be important for Rees-Zammit to learn in his American football crash course, too.

Running Back

Speed and agility also are positive attributes to have at running back, where players often receive the ball (called a handoff) from a quarterback and utilize space created by their offensive line/their own pace and quickness to gain yardage and help move an offence down the field. 

Running backs sometimes can act as receivers and take pass-catching duties, too, but the frequency of that depends on the team and its schemes.

Running backs often need to fight for extra yardage, as well, as a wall of defenders move in to tackle them on each play, which would test Rees-Zammit’s toughness and ability to keep going through contact if his breakaway speed doesn’t help him on a certain carry. 

Wade and rugby league convert Jarryd Hayne each played the position, with the latter making the active roster for the San Francisco 49ers in 2015, so it isn’t completely unheard of for a rugby player to be slotted in at tailback for a NFL squad. 

Running back also is a very instinct-based position, demanding players to make a lot of split-second decisions with each carry such as which hole in the offensive line to run through, how to get past an approaching defender in open space, etc.

Rugby’s nature of having hundreds to thousands of split-second decisions per game may help Rees-Zammit adjust if he becomes a running back, just in a different kind of way.

Punt/Kick Returner

In terms of movements and actions similar to rugby, punt/kick returner probably has the smallest learning curve for a winger like Rees-Zammit, who has done the position’s premise — taking a long kick and trying to make something happen with pace and movement against charging defenders — many times before with great success in rugby union. 

Wide receivers and running backs can be returners, as well, potentially maximizing Rees-Zammit’s chances of seeing the field. 

Often with limited time to react and make something happen, returners frequently show off plenty of individual expression with their quickness as they follow blocks, find gaps in the tackling team’s setup and go on long runs. That mantra may be what helps Rees-Zammit earn a roster spot, but what’s going against him is that there are many, many players of similar speed and agility playing in the NFL right now — plus those who are struggling to be signed by teams — and that searing speed alone may not be enough. 

Still, the rugby background of doing a similar action over and over certainly helps make the transition easier when Rees-Zammit has no American football experience. 

If Rees-Zammit does book his place onto a NFL roster, consider a return specialist — unless he blows away scouts while playing another position — to be his most likely deployment.