How often does overseas talent make it into the NFL

American football is predominantly a home-grown sport, with the vast majority of players coming from one of the 50 states in the United States or Canada. But while overseas talent is uncommon, it is becoming a growing influence on the league following the success of the International Player Pathway Program (IPPP).

Following on from the recent NFL Draft, sports fans will be keeping an eye on overseas talent, and other top picks ahead of what is expected to be another exciting NFL season. When the action gets underway later this year, punters that venture to reputable sportsbooks can use an Odds Calculator for all of the latest fixtures.

Does the NFL attract international talent?

At the start of the 2020 season, there were 54 foreign players on NFL rosters. Many of these internationals went on to have a significant impact for their respective franchises, Jacksonville’s Adam Gotsis and Chicago Bears’ Cairo Santos chief among them.

Overseas talent has a rich history in the NFL as there are currently nine players in the Hall of Fame who were born outside of the US. These include cult heroes like kicker Jan Stenerud and titanic defensive tackle Leo Nomellini. Mexico’s Tom Fears, Denmark’s Morten Anderson, and Guatemala’s Ted Hendricks, arguably the greatest ever overseas player, also feature.

That said, the NFL has the lowest percentage of foreign players across the major professional sports leagues in the US at just 3.03% during the 2017 season. That’s not completely surprising due to the global popularity of sports like ice hockey and basketball, which have national leagues and setups in countries in Europe.

It is something that American football teams have looked to address in recent years, with many putting in the extra effort to search for and to scout international prospects during the NFL Draft. In 2015, 12 international players were drafted, a league record.

Has the International Player Pathway Program helped?

The NFL’s IPPP scheme is also helping to broaden the appeal of the game and nurture talent in other countries that may have otherwise chosen different sports. The IPPP began in its current form in 2017 and, according to the NFL, helps provide “elite international athletes” the chance to train, learn and improve their skill set with the end goal of gaining a spot on an NFL roster.

“The International Player Pathway program is an important part of our ongoing efforts to grow the game globally and provide pathways for international players to make it to the NFL,” Damani Leech, NFL executive, recently noted.

To qualify for the program, overseas players need to be younger than 24, out of high school for several years, without prior US college football experience, and able to travel to the US in March for a two-month training period. There is then a clear assign and waiver process that helps the players that are part of the program each year to sign with a team in one of the eight divisions.

The NFL is now serious about bringing more overseas players to the league, and it bodes well for the long term. With American football generating greater interest around the world due to the iconic Super Bowl, athletes are more likely to channel their time and energies into making it in the NFL.

Several overseas players have already blazed a trail for future generations. London-born Osi Umenyiora is one of five players from Britain to have won the Super Bowl, alongside Marvin Allen, Scott McCready, Lawrence Tynes, and Jay Ajayi. The regular-season games hosted in London have also had a positive impact.

According to an MMQB report, “since the London International series began, participation in amateur football in the UK, for example, has risen by about 15% per year.” NFL teams are also forging closer connections with overseas teams, such as the Oakland Raiders with sister side Swarco Raiders in Austria.

As these networks are strengthened, and the popularity of the game continues to rise, more people from outside of the US will harbor dreams of making it to the NFL and eventually going all the way and winning a gold ring. They will be inspired by a growing number of players who are already making their mark.

Who are the best overseas players currently in the NFL?

David Onyemata is arguably the best overseas player operating in the NFL and is a testament to how even late starters can become world-class in their own right. The New Orleans Saints defensive tackle is from Nigeria and did not even pick up a football until his late teens. Still, he logged an impressive 6.5 sacks and 44 tackles in 2020 after signing a lucrative $27m contract extension.

Cario Santos became the first Brazilian-born player in the NFL when he joined the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014. After switching to his seventh franchise in 2020, Santos had a memorable campaign by kicking 27 consecutive field goals, a record for the Chicago Bears, and ending the season with an impressive record of 30 from 32 attempts. In early March, Santos put pen to paper on a new $9m three-year deal.

One of the big recent success stories for the IPPP is Efe Obada, a defensive end who started his career with the Kingston Warriors and London Warriors before signing with the Carolina Panthers in 2017 via the pathway program. Last season, Obada was impressive as he came in with 29 total quarterback pressures and 5.5 sacks, in addition to 18 tackles. Obada recently inked a one-year deal that will see him line up for the Buffalo Bills in 2021.

Some other overseas players had standout seasons in 2020, including Australia’s Mitch Wishnowsky for the San Francisco 49ers, Germany’s Jakob Johnson for the New England Patriots, and England’s Jack Crawford for the Tennessee Titans. Just making it to the NFL as a foreign-born athlete is an achievement, but with the success of the IPPP and the growing popularity of the game, it looks like their success on the field won’t be a rarity in the future.