Could the NFL ever have a Victor Wembanyama?

Victor Wembanyama has established himself as one of the best rising prospects in the world of basketball. The Frenchman is electric with his performances on the court and is considered the leading contender to be selected first overall in the 2023 Draft. What is most striking about Wembanyama is where he is performing at now. He is lighting up the Pro A League in France for Metropolitans 92, having previously steered LDLC ASVEL to the title in the 2021/22 campaign.

The 18-year-old is producing levels of brilliance rarely seen in European basketball, a sign that he should make the transition to the NBA. Wembanyama’s story is not uncommon. You don’t have to look far to see European players making a decisive impact, none more so than two-time MVP winner Giannis Antetokounmpo, as well as Luca Doncic and Nikola Jokic. Before them, Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol were the standouts for European basketball, thriving in the league without taking the traditional path up from the college game.

Wembanyama could follow in the footsteps of Yao Ming and Andrea Bargnani as one of the only first overall picks in the NBA Draft to emerge in overseas leagues having never played college basketball after. It would be another poignant moment for the NBA to flex the reach of the game, highlighting that anyone from anywhere can rise to the top of the sport in the United States.

Lack of Appeal For The NFL Overseas

The NFL does not have the same sphere of influence when it comes to players from Europe and further afield. The Buffalo Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs are among the top contenders to win the Vince Lombardi Trophy in the Super Bowl odds, and both have capitalized on high draft picks to secure their superstar quarterbacks. Both Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes are US-born players.

Indeed, all 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL are US-born. Unlike the NBA, the NFL has few stars that have emerged from overseas, and fewer still that have developed at  young age the way Wembanyama is currently shining in France.

The list of players who have made the grade from overseas to star in the NFL is short. There have been some breakthroughs, but those who have made it have mainly been kickers such as Morten Andersen, who was voted into the Hall of Fame in 2017, and Jan Stenerud, who preceded him in Canton in 1991.

Poland-born Sebastian Janikowski enjoyed a brilliant career in the NFL, and was even picked in the first round of the 2000 NFL Draft, but he did attend college at Florida State for three seasons. Among the best players who have not been specialists are Christian Okoye, Tamba Hali, Sebastian Vollmer and Hines Ward, although again all four attended college in the United States.

So far, there have been no standout players who have thrived in European or overseas league who have gone on to make a decisive impact in the NFL without attending college in the United States first. Moritz Böhringer has been the only player in NFL history to be selected in the NFL Draft without playing college football, and he failed to make the grade at both the Minnesota Vikings and the Cincinnati Bengals.

The amount of players who have moved to the States to attend college specifically to play American football, or simply emigrated at a young age, has grown in recent seasons. But, compared to the NBA, there is a stark contrast when it comes to where talent is emerging from, with around 95% or more emerging from the US and coming up through the collegiate system to be selected in the league.

How Can This Be Addressed?

The NFL are attempting to bring more overseas players into the league, with a designation to allow one player to join a roster without taking a spot, known as the International Player Pathway Program. With more space now available on rosters and practice squads at all 32 teams, there are simply more jobs available. There are three standouts from this program that remain on rosters around the NFL.

Jordan Mailata is perhaps the best to emerge from the program after he became only the second ever player to be selected in the NFL Draft without attending a US college. He has been a solid piece of the Philadelphia Eagles’ offensive line for five seasons, starting at left tackle for the past two seasons. Mailata signed a four-year deal with the Eagles worth $64 million, including $40m guaranteed. It is a huge statement of success for the IPP.

Efe Obada has also been a useful player for the Carolina Panthers, Buffalo Bills and Washington Commanders. Jakub Johnson earned the praise of Bill Belichick to snag a place on the New England Patriots’ roster in 2019 before returning to the German Football League, but he did have college experience with the Tennessee Volunteers .

These are good examples of players who have made the grade in the NFL and continue to play at a high level, but they are the exception rather than the rule. The NFL attempted to build a league in Europe called NFL Europe, but the competition was short lived. It did revive the careers of a portion of players who plied their trade across the continent, none more so than Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner. However, none of the players that emerged on the scene were actually from Europe, raising a problem for the NFL before the league became defunct in 2007.


Having already spent 15 years in London, the NFL has made a commitment to playing overseas. The likes of Obada and Jay Ajayi are testament to the fact that raising the profile of the game in the United Kingdom can unearth talent. Whether it can be enough to produce players in a league without having to attend college in the US is another matter.

The NBA is far ahead of the NFL with their European program, but there is no reason why the NFL cannot make incremental ground to attract athletes to American football and perhaps one day have their own Wembanyama.

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