Revealed: why NFL teams are signing rugby players such as Rees-Zammit (2024)

Earlier this week, Travis Clayton wandered back through the doors of Procius Limited.Up until a few months ago, this was where the 23-year-old passed his days, working for the UK’s ‘leader’ in ‘pre-employment background checking services’.

Put simply, Clayton helped companies hire the right person for the job.He returned a couple of days after taking on another role.

This time, his background had been under the microscope. Clayton’s CV had one glaring red flag: no previous experience. But the Buffalo Bills did all their usual checks and decided the Englishman was a good fit.

Last weekend, Clayton was selected with the 221st pick of the NFL Draft. He has pedigree in football, athletics, tennis, rowing, boxing and recently rugby, playing for Basingstoke in England’s eighth tier. Just not in American football.

But after a two-month crash course - alongside 15 other hopefuls from across the world and across sport – Clayton is heading to Buffalo.

TravisClayton was selectedby the Buffalo Bills with the 221st pick of the 2024 NFL Draft

Louis Rees-Zammit recently signed a three-year deal with Super Bowl champions the Chiefs

Earlier this week, Clayton visited his former colleagues at Procius Limited after joining the Bills

It is the culmination of a remarkable journey for the 6ft 7ins, 301lb prospect, who will soon begin a new career as an offensive tackle. It is also the second time in a few weeks that the cream of the NFL has turned to rugby.

Back in March, Louis Rees-Zammit – the former Wales prodigy and Clayton’s classmate on the International Player Pathway Program – signed a three-year deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.

All of which poses certain questions: Why are NFL teams overlooking college prospects in favour of a novice? What does this mean for other rugby players with one eye on switching codes? And how much hope do Clayton and Rees-Zammit really have of reaching the top?

‘I always had the dream of playing in the NFL,’ Clayton said. ‘There are a lot of steps still to be done, but the first step is a big one.’

The Bills have been here before. Back in 2019, Buffalo were allocated Christian Wade after the former England wing turned his back on rugby to try and break America.

Wade, too, had come through the IPPP, which aims to funnel elite athletes from around the world into the NFL.

By the time Mail Sport visited him in early 2022, Wade had seen both sides of life on an NFL team.

In 2019, Buffalo were allocated Christian Wade after the wing turned his back on rugby

His first touch in preseason resulted in a 65-yard touchdown but he never played an NFL game

The running back’s first touch in preseason had resulted in a 65-yard touchdown but the chance to play a league game had eluded him. It never arrived; soon Wade was back playing rugby. ‘You have to understand how it really works,’ he said at the time. ‘If you get into the NFL and you're on a team, that is the success.’

Wade’s journey served as an inspiration for Rees-Zammit – the pair spoke before and during the Welshman’s wild ride to Kansas City. The former wing has blazed a trail for Clayton, too.

The odds remain against both - since the IPPP was launched in 2017, just five players have made it on to a team’s 'active roster' for the season. By the time Clayton lands in Buffalo, however, the 23-year-old will survey a slowly shifting landscape.

These days, the path separating international hopefuls and the NFL is marginally less treacherous. Thanks to a couple of tweaks to the rule book and a 365lb wrecking ball who has crashed through the glass ceiling. All could prove pivotal for new recruits.

From the 2024 season, all 32 teams will have an extra slot on their practice squad reserved for an international player. That protects them from the daily dogfight between prospects battling for a livelihood. ‘Literally the same day someone’s locker’s cleared out, someone else is coming in,' Wade told Mail Sport. 'It’s crazy.’

Rees-Zammit made the shock switch from rugby in search of a career in American football

Under these new rules, foreign recruits can also be promoted from the practice squad up to three times a season, ‘creating more opportunity for international players to develop and play in the League.’

There is another innovation that could fast-track Rees-Zammit towards the field. NFL owners recently approved a massive revamp to kick-offs rules. The change is designed to encourage teams to run the ball back more. And for Rees-Zammit, it is ‘absolutely massive’.

Nearly a half of NFL teams looked at the Welshman and this made him an even more enticing prospect: in rugby, so much of his success was built off an ability to beat defenders when running from deep.

Rees-Zammit is listed as a running back; the Chiefs could use him as a receiver, too. But the 6ft 3ins Welshman’s most immediate impact could come as a kick returner. ‘That's where my main position is going to be. So I've got to fight to be a starter in that position this year,’ Rees-Zammit said recently.

That won’t help Clayton much. But the lineman will benefit from treading the same path as Jordan Mailata.

Former rugby league player Jordan Mailata came through the IPPP before being drafted

Rees-Zammit rose to the top of rugby before deciding to try his luck in American football

Like Clayton, the Australian former rugby league player came through the IPPP before being drafted in the seventh round. Like Clayton, he had no previous experience playing American football. Six years after joining the Philadelphia Eagles, however, he is one of the NFL’s finest tackles and the IPPP’s ‘poster boy’.

Mailata visited this year’s crop. 'He really shone a light on why we're here, and what is achievable,’ George Smith, another rugby-player-turned-NFL-hopeful told Mail Sport. Perhaps more crucially, though, Mailata provided a painful lesson for NFL teams.

‘His success as a converted rugby player certainly should show teams the potential these athletes hold,’ Rees-Zammit’s agent, Kimberly Miale of Roc Nation Sports, told Mail Sport.

James Cook, who heads up the IPPP, agrees. ‘The Eagles drafted Jordan back in 2018 and he ended up being a Pro Bowler,' he tells Mail Sport. 'So everyone wants the next one.’

While in Buffalo, Wade felt that his success in England counted for very little – ‘rugby is too minuscule to them,’ he said at the time. ‘(It) didn’t really mean anything.’

Now, though, teams see that the IPPP is a ‘credible source of talent’.

The program expanded this year to include kickers and punters ; Cook is regularly fielding questions about recruits' attributes and character. The fear of missing out makes terms more willing to take a punt on potential.

Clayton visited several teams before landing in Buffalo. According to Cook, no draft-eligible graduate of the IPPP has ever attracted as much interest as Clayton and classmate Bayron Matos.

Before the draft, Clayton turned heads in the NFL by running the 40-yard dash in 4.79 seconds

The Englishman’s tape caught the eye of Bills offensive line coach Aaron Kromer: ‘Man this guy is athletic (but) obviously raw,' he said.

General manager Brandon Beane confessed: ‘I’ve never seen him really, truly play football. But I know he was a rugby player, boxing and by all accounts a great young man. And his measurables are wowing off the page.’

Before the draft, Clayton ran the 40-yard dash in 4.79 seconds – the fastest of any OL recorded by the Bills over the past decade. His 7ft wingspan and agility also impressed analysts.

Rees-Zammit, meanwhile, is blessed with many skills that are ‘crucial’ in both rugby and American football. ‘Speed, agility, hand-eye coordination and power,’ Miale says. ‘His familiarity with tackling technique, physicality and the rigours of pro sport are all potentially transferable as well.’

During his time with the Buffalo Bills, Wade felt his success in England counted for very little

Smith believes a background in rugby – which is less structured than American football - can actually give foreign recruits an advantage. ‘(We) can read the game differently to other tackles and other players who have just been playing football,’ he says.

Unfortunately, though, nothing is a substitute for years of experience. Smith said his body went through 'torture' adjusting the movements of a new sport.

Wade suffered a serious shoulder injury in practice because he had been conditioned to break his fall, rather than let the pads protect him. Rees-Zammit, one of rugby's most fluid attackers, suddenly looked 'stiff' when running receiver routes.

As for Clayton? An NFL analyst believes that to sustain this dream he needs 'significant time developing and adding more muscle to his frame'. Then there is the mental challenge of learning an NFL playbook.

'Athletically, (he) can step out on the field right now,” Dunn said. 'Where they’re going to be behind is in the classroom,' one IPPP coach said.

Cook adds: ‘The hardest thing to transition to this sport is just the speed at which you need to process the game.' Core principles can be taught on a whiteboard. But applying them on the field – in real time - 'is when this game gets really hard.’

On the IPPP, Rees-Zammit used a wall of post-it notes to quiz himself on terms and formations

During the IPPP, Rees-Zammit used a wall of post-it notes to quiz himself on terms and formations. ‘You have to learn like a thousand plays,' he told Mail Sport. ‘There is so much.'

Clayton entered this journey with ‘no clue’ about the rules of American football - beyond the length of each quarter - but a Ravens coach taught him Baltimore’s pass protection schemes before testing him immediately.

American football is a game of details and numbers. That means longer days than at a rugby club. Wade recalls working for 13 hours during preseason; players sit through meeting after meeting. ‘Every day… they could ask me anything from that three-hour meeting,’ he recalled. ‘If I don’t know the answer, I could be out the door.’

No wonder Wade warned Rees-Zammit that he faces months, even years in a ‘dark place’. No wonder Cook has to temper expectations.

‘Life at the bottom of a roster in the NFL isn't as sexy as it's made out to be on TV,’ he tells recruits. ‘It could take two or three years of really kind of grinding it out and not getting a lot of light, people maybe forgetting you a little bit and you being a second thought…but stick with it, trust the process. And if you really care about the reason why you're doing this is strong enough, then it'll pay out in the end.’

Revealed: why NFL teams are signing rugby players such as Rees-Zammit (2024)
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