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Louis Rees-Zammit’s rugby-to-NFL dream edges closer but huge obstacles remain
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Louis Rees-Zammit’s rugby-to-NFL dream edges closer but huge obstacles remain

If ever there was a time, if ever there was a place, for Louis Rees-Zammit to chase his NFL dream, this is it. The former Welsh rugby union star is reportedly nearing a deal to join the Kansas City Chiefs, the back-to-back Super Bowl champions.

Rees-Zammit is likely to join the team for their annual training camp, a kind of extended trial as he learns the rigors of the NFL. He will join a 90-man training camp roster that will eventually be whittled down to 53, with 16 further places up for grabs on the practice squad, in effect a reserve team. This season also marks the first time that teams will have an extra spot available on the practice squad carved out for players who have come through the league’s International Player Pathway program. Since the IPP was introduced, 37 international players have signed with teams and 18 remain on rosters.

In other words, there is still a long way to go for Rees-Zammit even though this is a promising start. The transition from rugby to the NFL is fierce. The complexities of the positions and playbooks are tough for even some of the best college players to grasp. And no franchise runs as sophisticated a system as the Chiefs.

But there was news this week that should encourage those who believe in Rees-Zammit and could be the minor miracle he needed to build a meaningful NFL career. NFL owners have agreed to a rule change that will overhaul the league’s kickoff procedure. In recent years, due to the sport’s ongoing concussion crisis, the league adopted a neutered version of kickoffs, the best chance for a player to gather the ball and make a play in the open field. To address injury concerns, the league drafted rules that drastically reduced the number of returns. Last season, only 23% of kickoffs were returned. The latest change will transform that. The NFL is moving to a new style that will see returns leap to between 60 and 90%, making the kickoff a weapon again.

This is good news for Rees-Zammit, whose best chance at making an NFL roster was as a kick returner on the special team unit. And returners are now at a premium. Playing a traditional position, it would take time for the 23-year-old to gather the institutional knowledge needed to line up on Sundays. But being given four or so chances a game to gather the ball, run and break tackles should come naturally to a talented but raw player like the Welshman.

Franchises usually take a gamble on players coming through the international program in the hope that they will become something someday. With the roster exemptions, there are no downsides. At best, those players are viewed as fringe prospects, typically elite athletes, who could be molded into roster-caliber players. Rees-Zammit’s value is that he has upside today.

With the new rules, teams will be chasing a market inefficiency, looking for a player on a cheap contract – Rees-Zammit would make $216,000 (£171,000) a season on a practice squad – who would not have made a roster under the old ways but who can now bring juice to the return game.

Rees-Zammit fits the bill, though the odds are still long. Plug him into this year’s NFL draft and his performance in drills that measure speed, size and strength are in the bottom 7% of wide receiver prospects. At his Pro Day, where team scouts look at prospects, he clocked a good sprint time but failed to match up to even low-level draft prospects of the same build in other important metrics. As a running back, he is too lanky and unfamiliar with the nuances that dictate whether a player makes the field or not.

But with the kickoff revamp, Rees-Zammit becomes less of a long-term receiver or running back project and more of an instantaneous specialist, tilting the odds ever so slightly that he could hang on to a roster spot. Teams traditionally carried a return specialist on their roster on the understanding that a sudden jolt – a score, a big breakaway – could shift momentum, spark a drive or tip the game in their favor. As the league began to legislate returns out of the games, though, teams opted against keeping a specialist, preferring to use a running back, wide receiver or defensive player who could moonlight as a returner.

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Now, that calculus is changing, with the revamped kickoff rules. Through that prism, Rees-Zammit’s skills make sense; he can shake away tackles and drive downhill rather than having to deal with the intricacies of route running or mastering pass protection.

The timing is ideal – and the landing spot, if confirmed, is even better. With Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid, he’ll be working with the best quarterback in the game and the league’s most innovative coach. If anybody is willing to bend the norms, it’s Reid. At worst, Rees-Zammit will spend time around one of the greatest coach-quarterback duos in the league, working in the most cutting-edge offense in the sport. For a former rugby star trying to live out a fantasy, that is objectively cool.

Even with the rule change, the odds are slim that Rees-Zammit will make it out of training camp and lower still that he makes the Chiefs’ active roster this season. The Chiefs are aiming for an unprecedented three-peat – and are more likely to fall back on known quantities with experience in the game. But the kickoff reform has opened up a lane that the Welshman could run through at some point. It’s not out of the question that the Chiefs squirrel him away on the practice squad to learn the game before giving him an opportunity to play in the NFL in a season or two.

Source: theguardian.com