Major League Baseball is king when it comes to preparing its young players for the professional ranks, with each team having several minor league affiliates. The structure is designed to provide steps towards each player’s ultimate goal of one day making it to The Show.
Players are allocated to certain levels based on age and skill level, and once a sense of mastery is shown, they move up in the ranks. Sounds simple, right?
Even the NHL and NBA have feeder leagues, although not as intricate or directly tied to all teams. But the fact that developmental leagues are in place—other than just relying on college athletics—indicates that these leagues have a desire to provide appropriate steps of preparation for their future employees.
The NFL has no developmental league in place and depends solely upon college football for its source of talent. Is there anything wrong with the current setup? Apparently not, since the NFL is the most successful entity in sports across the American landscape.
However, that does not mean that the way things are done now is the best approach to prepare players for the rigors of the NFL.
The grind of the NFL is apathetic to the preservation of the human body. That is why the season consists of 16 games that occur only once a week. Furthermore, that doesn’t include practices, offseason programs and preseason games, which only add to the toll on one’s body, especially those near the bottom of the depth chart trying harder to earn a spot on the final rosters.
Currently, the NFL allows each team to carry up to eight players on its practice squad. These players are affiliated with said team and participate in everything other than playing in the games on Sunday. However, those players do not exclusively belong to those teams and can sign elsewhere if given the opportunity.
NFL teams enter training camp with over 80 players on their rosters before paring down to 53 to begin the season. Including the eight practice squad players, this leaves at least 19 men needing to find work, most of whom have only known football their entire lives.
A failed attempt with NFL Europe could indicate that the NFL is turned off to the feeder system completely, especially since college football does a good job of preparing athletes for the next level.
The NFL—unlike MLB, the NBA or the NHL—has a more restrictive rule regarding early entry into its draft (although the NCAA and NBA forces players to skip a year before entering the NBA draft). Whether or not they decide to play college football, athletes must be three years removed from their graduating high school class to become eligible.
This mitigates the risk of immature minds and, more importantly, bodies from being exposed to the dangers of the NFL. In essence, college football provides the right amount of time for young athletes to mature into players that are ready to endure the level of play that the NFL requires.
However, the real issue is, what do fringe players do if they need more time to develop? The solution, if an actual feeder league isn’t possible, is simple—and it is friendly to player safety, which is a hot-button topic in all sports these days.
The NFL should first expand the number of players allowed on the practice squad. The exact number is unknown, but it wouldn’t be difficult to determine given how many players get lost in the shuffle early on, only to develop into quality players two or three years down the road.
The next step would be for the teams to have exclusive rights to the players on the practice squad. This not only protects the team, but guarantees that these players have jobs and something to look forward to rather than not having control over what might happen tomorrow.
College football is adequate in doing its job preparing players for the next level. However, once there, there’s no guarantee that players will continue to develop towards fulfilling their NFL dreams.
With no real feeder league in the works for the NFL, expanding practice squads and making those players team-exclusive will help bridge that gap. It will also help keep young players doing what they love and provide much needed respite for all players throughout the season.