2021 NFL preview: International players to watch this season

After seven long months, the NFL is finally back in action this weekend. After last year’s empty stadiums and intense covid fans and teams alike are more than ready to return to football normalcy. However, there is nothing “normal” about this list of international players who have blazed their own unique trails onto NFL teams this season.

Many of these players found their way to the Pros through the International Pathway Program, a program designed for scouting and training elite athletes across the globe and preparing them for NFL Sundays. This season more than ever, the program could see a plethora of its alumni make meaningful impacts on Sundays this fall. Let’s take a look at the list of talented internationals:

defensive end Efe Obada in pre-season Photo: Buffalo Bills

Efe Obada: The British defensive end enters his seventh season in the NFL and his first with the Buffalo Bills. The former London Warrior signed a one-year deal this off-season as a free agent to join the Western New York team after a career-best five and a half sacks last season with the Carolina Panthers. Expect Obada to have a large role in the Bills defensive line rotation as they look to knock off the Chiefs as the AFC favorite.

Jakob Johnson scores on Sunday night football Photo: Elaine Thompson AP

Jakob Johnson: The former Stuttgart Scorpion is back in Boston as the Patriots starting fullback. Last year, Johnson played in all 16 games for New England making key contributions to the offense and on special teams. Better yet, he became the first international pathway program player to score a touchdown with a one-yard reception on Sunday night football. Fans can anticipate Johnson to see the field often this season in head coach Bill Belichick’s fullback friendly offense.

Jordan Mailata is listed as the Eagles starting left tackle Photo: Philadelphia Eagles

Jordan Mailata: The former rugby standout returns to Philadelphia for his fourth season poised for a breakout performance. Mailata started 10 games for the Eagles last season after injuries decimated the offensive line. This year, Mailata and former first-round draft pick Andre Dillard entered the camp in a position battle fighting for the role of starting left tackle role. The 6’8 350 lb Australian’s preseason seemed to have won over the coaches as he’s been named the starter for the 2021 season.

Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Adam Gotsis Photo: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Gotsis: The Melbourne native projects to be a key part of the Jacksonville Jaguars defensive line rotation. The former Georgia Tech (NCAA D1) product enters his sixth season in the NFL and his second with the Jaguars. The 2016 third-round draft pick has carved out a nice career in the NFL and is eager for another productive season as he will enter free agency in 2022.

Graphic: Igor Lazarevic

Sammis Reyes: This Sunday Reyes is set to become the first Chilean to ever play in the NFL. The former Chilean national team and Tulane University basketball player made the transition from the hardwood to the gridiron during this off-season. Reyes showed an impressive ability to learn quickly blocking and catching well in his first-ever American football action this NFL preseason. The 6’5 260 lb 25-year old should see some time of special teams for the Washington Football Team as they look to return to the postseason.

International kickers and punters

Yunghoe Kuu Photo: Atlanta Falcons

Atlanta Falcons kicker Yunghoe Kuu is coming off of a career-best season. Seoul, South Korea-born Kuu made the Pro Bowl in 2020 hitting on 32 of his 33 field goals while making a name for himself as the league’s most successful onside kicker.

Currently, four Australian punters are slated to take the field this season. Michael Dickson (Seattle Seahawks), Mitch Wishnowsky (San Francisco 49ers), Cameron Johnston (Houston Texans), and Arryn Sipboss (Philadelphia Eagles) will all be trotting out on fourth downs this fall as the Australian influence on the NFL continues to trend upward.

In the Midwest, Scottish punter Jamie Gillan will be the Cleveland Browns starting punter for the third straight season. Brazilian kicker Cairo Santo returns to the windy city for a second season after going 30 of 32 for the Chicago Bears in 2020. Staying in the NFC North, South African kicker Greg Joseph is listed as the Minnesota Vikings starter after a short stint in Tampa Bay last season.

Austrian Bernhard Seikovits in Arizona Cardinals practice Photo: Arizona Cardinals

Practice squad players patient waiting:

For these international players, the wait continues as they refine their game and stay ready for their chance to suit up on the world’s biggest stage. Fortunately, these international players do not count against the NFL’s practice squad limit opening the door for them to keep developing and preparing for their eventual opportunity to prove themselves against the best.

Austrian’s Sandro Platzgummer (New York Giants) and Bernhard Seikovits (Arizona Cardinals) find themselves on the practice squad this season in their second and first years in the NFL respectively.

Meanwhile, “HBO Hard Knocks” star Isaac Alarcón (Dallas Cowboys) and fellow Mexican offensive lineman Alfredo Gutierrez (San Francisco 49ers) will also start the season on their team’s practice squad.

David Bada celebrates a sack. Photo: Elaine Thompson

German defensive tackle David Bada (Washington Football Team) looked like a legit candidate for the gameday roster after an impressive preseason that featured six tackles, one and a half sacks, and a blocked kick. However, an injury has put that on hold.  Bada has been sent to the injured reserve list but, could return later this season. Fellow German Aaron Donkor (Seattle Seahawks) looks to develop his linebacker skills under Pete Carroll in his first year in the pros.

Former rugby pro running back Christian Wade returns to the Buffalo Bills practice squad for the third straight season. The Englishmen had untimely injuries limiting his chances to show his development on the gridiron this preseason. Australian defensive end Matt Leo (Philadelphia Eagles) has also been designated to the practice squad once again, making him the Eagles third Australian player.

Italian offensive lineman Max Pircher Photo: LA Rams

Italian offensive tackle Maximilian Pircher finds himself on the practice squad for the LA Rams in only his second full season of American football. The 6’7 300 lb 22-year-old is a raw prospect with sky-high potential that should be in contention for an active roster spot down the line. Another offensive lineman an keep an eye on is Durval Queiroz Neto.  The 6’4 340 lb Brazilian goes into his third season on the Miami Dolphins practice squad as he continues to transition from the defensive to the offensive line. Third-year Danish offensive lineman Hjalte Froholdt was recently signed to the Houston Texans practice squad after playing in eight games for the New England Patriots last season.

The long list of international players heading into the 2021 season is a credit to the NFL’s global expansion efforts making the dream of the NFL a reality for a select few global players every year. In the physically demanding game of football and the chaos of covid protocols, fans could see many of these international practice squad players thrust into action this season. For those players already on the active roster, they have a chance to open the door for other global players working hard for their chance to compete against the best.

Alex is a former professional American football player who is now studying in London. His goal writing for AFI is to stay involved with the game that has given him so much. Alex enjoys covering leagues and players and sharing different football