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Why The NFL Needs The Spring League

Why The NFL Needs The Spring League
Photo: © RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports
By Darius Walker

It's been a long time since the NFL had a clear and flourishing program to identify overlooked talent.

Ten years to be exact.

In 2007, the NFL disbanded the NFL Europe league after 16 seasons and a reported $30 million in annual losses. Its purpose was to provide learning opportunities for up-and-coming prospects to gain experience and receive professional coaching while simultaneously broadening interest in football throughout Europe. And it worked, at least for producing a few noteworthy players in return specialist and receiver Dante Hall, linebacker James Harrison, kicker Adam Vinatieri, and Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner.

Unfortunately, since NFL Europe's closure, not much progress has been made in pro football development leagues -- until now.

The Spring League is a new player development upstart that hopes to fill a void for nurturing football talent. Established in 2016 to serve as a platform for hopefuls and veterans seeking another chance to compete for a roster spot in the NFL, The Spring League supplies the necessary equipment, venues, and officials for exhibition games and plays in accordance to NFL rules. This is obviously a key differentiator relative to the Canadian Football League or the Arena Football League.

The Spring League has its second showcase of 2017 slated for Saturday, July 15, at 5 PM PT at Napa Memorial Stadium in Napa, CA, and the event is streaming live on FloFootball.

The first showcase kicked off in April amid significant interest from pro leagues. The Spring League CEO Brian Woods revealed in a recent interview with the Napa Valley Register that scouts visited from 10 NFL teams and two Canadian clubs, with another 20 requesting player film. Impressively, about a dozen players who participated in the first event received invites to NFL mini-camps.

The July roster includes former Carolina Panthers Pro Bowler Greg Hardy and running back Fred Jackson, one of the most prolific rushers in Buffalo Bills franchise history. Two coaches with NFL roots -- Terry Shea and Donnie Henderson -- will serve as head coaches in the game. Several NFL scouts are expected to attend practice sessions and receive game footage for player evaluation.

What may surprise some people is that players in The Spring League are not paid and are required to have their own health insurance.

This payment model -- or lack thereof -- is a result of the league's main objective: to allow fringe talent to be discovered.

"The idea behind [the league] is, we bring them in, we provide them with meals, and we give them instruction," Woods told the Napa Valley Register. "We provide them with the platform to continue to develop their game, to continue to get repetitions they need, and then be evaluated in front of NFL personnel directors and the like."

While The Spring League is new, its importance to the future talent pool of professional football could be significant. Opportunities for players post-college to prove they belong in the NFL are extremely limited.

According to NFL rules, only 90 players are allowed to participate in each team's training camp, with a 53-man limit set for early September. Camp generally starts in mid-July, which means players have about two months -- and only four preseason games -- to earn a roster spot. This isn't nearly enough time to fully evaluate players. Furthermore, returning veterans and early-round draft picks already fill the majority of the roster and get the lion's share of practice reps, so guys vying for a job have the odds stacked heavily against them.

A new structure and approach seems ideal for player growth, yet it's odd that the NFL continues to operate with no official development league, especially when you consider the fact that D-leagues exist in virtually every other sport.

Major League Baseball has multiple levels within its minor league system, and the NBA's newly renamed G-League has been around for more than two decades. Plus, the majority of teams in the NHL have long-standing affiliation agreements with minor league clubs in the American Hockey League.
It's obvious that the NFL is far behind its peers in nurturing young players. With The Spring League or something equivalent, the NFL would certainly give players more time to blossom into contributors. While there's no official relationship between The Spring League and the NFL -- maybe there could be in time.

Stay glued to FloFootball.com for more coverage leading up to The Spring League's July 15 showcase.

-Darius Walker played at Notre Dame from 2004-06 before spending two seasons with the Houston Texans from 2007-08. He currently works as a college football analyst.

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