Buidling Dreams Together


Louis Rees-Zammit in the NFL: Changes, Chances and Challenges

In January, the rugby world was shocked by the announcement that Gloucester and Wales winger Louis Rees-Zammit would be packing his bags and flying off to Florida in search of a dream move to the NFL.

As the Welshman undergoes an intensive 10-week training period in the International Player Pathway, we take a look at his chances, the challenges he’ll have to face and other foreign nationals that have blazed a trail in the NFL before him.

LRZ’s Rugby Days

Born in Penarth, Louis Rees-Zammit started his youth career at the nearby Cardiff Blues. After continuing at Hartpury College he signed for Gloucester Rugby, where he broke into the first team at a record-breaking young age of 18 years and 70 days.

Now 23, Rees-Zammit has played 77 times for Gloucester, scoring 42 tries along the way. His rising profile in Premiership rugby led to an important role in the Wales set up, leading to 14 tries in 32 appearances for his country. His breakout came in the Six Nations in 2021 during which he was selected for team of the championship and helped Wales win their 39th title. He also was part of the 2023 Rugby World Cup squad that reached the quarter-finals.

Rees-Zammit played 32 times for Wales

Nicknamed ‘Rees Lightning’, he played primarily as a winger during his rugby days, utilising his speed and agility to devastating effect. And at 6’3 he has physicality to match his nimbleness. His role required him to be the crux of attacks and reliable for point-scoring, but also be able to carry the ball through defences. Both of which lend themselves well to the running back/wide receiver role Rees-Zammit is targeting for his NFL career.

LRZ’s NFL Chances

Rees-Zammit’s decision understandably shook Welsh rugby in particular, with their future success planning being largely built around his output. However, in his parting interview with Gloucester, he explained his decision to hop across the pond was more down to his long-time love of the NFL, inspired by his father, rather than falling out of love with rugby.

He certainly has the capabilities to make his father proud. As well as being a strong, versatile asset in both the rushing and passing games, he is joining at a time where a number of franchises are in need of such a player.

Joseph Zammit, a life long NFL fan, helped inspire his son’s decision.

On the wide receiver side of things the Cincinnati Bengals will be in the market should Tee Higgins get traded, Jacksonville Jaguars require more zip to their attack to further enhance Trevor Lawrence’s ability and Buffalo Bills need wide reinforcements alongside the quality of Stefon Diggs.

Meanwhile, the Baltimore Ravens are out to stock up on both a wide man and more pressingly a running back as will the Minnesota Vikings and Green Bay Packers. The latter of which have a promising, young squad that could gel well with Ress-Zammit’s development.

As talented though as he may be, it’s far from a straightforward path into the NFL for Rees-Zammit.

LRZ’s NFL Challenges

There are numerous obstacles to overcome during this process for the Welshman. Rugby and American football are often seen as two sides of the same coin, but in reality they are vastly different. Particularly for players adapting from one to the other, as Rees-Zammit admitted himself on The Pathway:

“My body’s obviously not used to running full pace and then trying to stop immediately. And I can definitely feel that in my legs at the minute but day by day I’m slowly getting used to it.”

Lamar Jackson’s Baltimore Ravens may be one of the NFL teams interested in Rees-Zammit

The stop-start nature of gridiron football can be jarring to even fans more accustomed to rugby or association football, let alone those involved. Additionally, while pre-match principles are not uncommon in football, plays are compartmentalised and so more changeable than the flow of rugby. It is more about executing specific plans than nonstop tenacity.

Current Racing 92 winger and former Buffalo Bills running back Christian Wade has previously opened up about the difficulty of transitioning from rugby to football:

“You do have to go to a dark place. It is not about going to a dark place once, it is for months and years … You can literally be cut on any day. That is the most daunting thing. The NFL is the American dream. If you make it, it is great, if you don’t it’s a brutal experience seeing guys being cut and you know it could happen to you at any moment.

“I got a two year deal with the Bills, then another but at the end of my third year I injured my shoulder. I went onto injury reserve [and was] then released.”

Competition for places is a major barrier in the NFL. Though it’s clear he has a passion and knowledge of the game, Rees-Zammit will be competing with those that have played gridiron football their whole lives and right through college. Only 1.6% of college football players will ever experience an NFL game and so coming up against such well oiled, equally determined footballers is a tough ask.

Rees-Zammit has been in the IPPP training program since January

Even being one of the lucky selected few doesn’t guarantee anything, as Wade unfortunately discovered. NFL rosters are made up of a maximum of 90 players during the offseason which is then cut to 53 when the regular season starts in September. As well as the stacked college football prospects in his position this year, Rees-Zammit will also have to pip free agents on the market, including Marquise Brown, Odell Beckam Jr. and Gabe Davis.

According to Wade, this dog-eat-dog environment can lead to some trouble when ingratiating into a set-up too, “Everybody is fighting for their own survival. America is a very big place and very lonely. It definitely is going to be lonely, But once you get an opportunity to play and once you prove yourself a few people might start talking to you.”

It’s certainly full of challenges, but there are some positives to draw from.


Positives for LRZ (& the IPPP)

Louis Rees-Zammit is joining the NFL through its International Player Pathway Program (or: IPPP), which has been improving every year. The NFL’s expansion overseas can be seen in the growth of the International Series as well as the league’s aim for the IPPP to become the destination for the world’s best athletes to develop and begin their journey in American football”.

Christian Wade reaches the end zone at the end of a 65-yard touchdown for the Bills

There is also the benefit of a rule change this year, stating that an extra spot will be allocated especially for international players in a team’s practice squad, giving much more incentive to take include those from the IPPP.

In terms of the program, it has been a steady growth. Established in 2016 under the previous banner of NFL Undiscovered, Andre Dable-Wolf and Mortiz Bohringer were the first graduates, with the latter becoming the first European player to be drafted into the NFL without previous college football experience. The next year, under the IPPP name, four players entered the program, three of them British and one of them a former rugby star Alex Gray, who signed as a tight end for the Atlanta Falcons.

Efe Obada is the only current British NFL player in an active roster

In total, eight British players have made their way into the NFL draft via the IPPP, with Gray being joined by Christian Scotland-Williamson and the aforementioned Christian Wade as the former rugby players changing avenues. They had less than spectacular success. Though Wade started his NFL journey with a 65-yard touchdown run in preseason for the Bills, his career in Buffalo ended after three seasons with no competitive appearances. Though it is worth noting that, along with the tough going regime to even earn a spot in a practice roster, Wade was dogged by injuries throughout his stay in America.

Elsewhere, defensive end Efe Obada joined the program in 2017 after three years spent playing for London Warriors and in the practice squads of Dallas Cowboys, Kansas City Chiefs and Atlanta Falcons. He is currently on the active roster for the Washington Commanders, with seventeen appearances in his first campaign followed by an injury-hampered three in his second. As stated, however, Odaba was starting purely from American football with no prior professional experience in sport prior to joining the Warriors.

Fellow Commanders’ Sammie Reyes (Chile) and David Bada (Germany) are also other IPPP graduates that are currently attached to NFL teams along with Jakob Johnson (Germany) of Las Vegas Raiders and Jordan Mailata (Australia) of Philadelphia Eagles. Super Bowl 57 runner-up Mailata also started his career in rugby league and has thrived as an offensive tackle.

Jordan Mailata is the IPPP’s biggest success story

Despite there being a number of pioneers before him, Rees-Zammit is a unique player when it comes to the IPPP. Already the poster boy of Welsh rugby at 23, he is probably the most gifted rugby player to make the transition, and certainly the most high profile at the time of leaving. His age also gives him the advantage of working and developing in American football for a time before his prime.

It can be seen then that Louis Rees-Zammit could well be a pioneer of his own rather than another one of the pack that came before. Football may not be played on paper or behind a keyboard (unless you’re on Madden), but he has everything needed to surpass his contemporaries. Though it will take a huge amount of toil and hardship to earn opportunities, there’s no doubt Rees-Zammit would have known that before making his decision. And rugby isn’t exactly golf either.

His NFL trial day is 20th March where it will be imperative to show what he can do to scouts across the league. Staying true to his unique qualities that made him a superstar in rugby will be as important as adapting to the structure of gridiron football. As Head of the IPPP James Cook said, “We want them [the IPPP athletes] to want to be the outsider and embrace that image.”

Should he do so pitch perfectly then ‘Greased Lightning’ could well be blazing from NFL stadium speakers come the regular season.

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I write about football and I support Tottenham Hotspur.