Three prospects to watch at International Player Pathway program workout

By Scott Pioli, NFL Media Analyst

At this point in the NFL offseason, roster-builders have scoured the free-agent market and built out draft boards in search of players who can help them win. And this week, teams will get an up-close look at another potential source of impact talent: the International Player Pathway program.

On Wednesday, the 15 members of the IPP’s Class of 2024, representing eight different countries, will take the field for a workout in front of NFL scouts as part of the University of South Florida pro day, surely hoping to add their names to the list of successful pros produced by the program.

The IPP program (which, it is important to note, is different from the NFL Academy) is designed to offer elite athletes from around the world with experience in other sports — like rugby, basketball, track, Gaelic football and Australian football, among others — the opportunity to earn a spot on an NFL roster. Since the program began in 2017, 37 participants have signed with NFL teams, and five have been active for at least one game: Eagles left tackle Jordan Mailata (who hails from Australia); Commanders defensive end Efe Obada (United Kingdom); Raiders fullback Jakob Johnson (Germany); tight end Sammis Reyes (Chile), who appeared in 11 games with the Commanders in 2021; and defensive tackle David Bada (Germany), who appeared in two games with the Commanders in 2022. There are currently 18 former IPP participants who are either on an active roster or a practice squad, or signed to a reserve/futures contract.

Each year, the athletes are chosen by a committee that includes the head of the IPP, James Cook, his small team of scouts and me. We all work to form relationships and find top talent in sports leagues across the globe. Once the class is selected, this group then leads the 10-week training camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, where athletes eat, drink and sleep all things American football.

I’ve been a consultant for the IPP program since 2019, and in that role, I spend time interviewing, mentoring and evaluating the athletes while they work on their on-field and weight-room training. The growth these athletes show in 10 short weeks, both physically and in terms of their knowledge of the game, is always staggering.

This year’s class features 10 international athletes and a first-ever group of five specialists from England and Ireland. Also, for the first time, each of the 32 NFL teams will have a 17th roster spot on the practice squad specifically available for an international player. In addition, a team is permitted to elevate its international practice squad player to its active roster a maximum of three times throughout the season — increasing the flexibility for clubs to get the most out of that additional player while creating more opportunities for the players to play. Teams will also receive one training camp roster exemption for a qualifying international player beginning this year

Among the 15 athletes working out Wednesday, three players have caught my attention as immediate NFL developmental prospects. Several others will also have a chance as they continue to progress, but here’s what I’ve gathered from my time spent with the top three at the IMG Academy.

Bayron Matos, OL: The 23-year-old from the Dominican Republic is a mountain of a man, checking in at 6-foot-8, 290 pounds. Matos moved to the United States at 16 years old to play basketball at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The forward went on to play Division I basketball at New Mexico and University of South Florida. Matos walked onto the USF football team in 2022, but he didn’t play during the regular season.

At IMG Academy, Matos has picked up specific offensive line movement skills quicker than most and is making remarkable strides. He is smooth, with good foot/hand coordination, and possesses rare punch explosion. As a lifelong evaluator, you just know rare punch/explosion when you hear it and see it. You can hear his punch from the other side of the field. One of the toughest aspects of playing along the offensive line in the NFL is understanding and processing plays, checks and audibles at the line of scrimmage. Matos — whose first language is not English — is very perceptive and has shown he can do this exceptionally well. I would not at all be surprised to hear his name called on Day 3 of the 2024 NFL Draft next month.

Louis Rees-Zammit, RB/WR: Rees-Zammit’s story is incredibly unique. The world-class rugby player (winger) has represented Wales since 2020, playing in both the Six Nations and 2023 Rugby World Cup. In 2021, he was on the British & Irish Lions squad for the tour of South Africa. Rees-Zammit walked away from a six-figure contract to pursue his NFL dream through the IPP program. He grew up watching the NFL with his father, Joe, who played for the Welsh American football team in the 1980s. I have spent a lot of time getting to know Rees-Zammit, 23, who is very sharp, focused and passionate.

On the field, he possesses rare acceleration — evident in his rugby film and in workouts — and is working hard on developing skills that are new to him, including route running and pad level as a ball-carrier, among other things.

Pat Murtagh, TE: This is the 24-year-old’s second stint in the IPP program. Last year, Murtagh was assigned to the Detroit Lions following IPP camp, but an undisclosed medical issue ended his time in the Motor City. Murtagh, a former Australian rules football player and member of the AFL’s Gold Coast Suns, has spent the past year training and preparing for this second opportunity. Murtagh has an excellent frame, soft hands and exceptional catch ability. Aussie rules football emphasizes catching skills, including high-pointing the ball. He also possesses great leadership skills, having really piloted the program this year.

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