NFL Desperately Needs a Development League

Jarryd Hayne, Steven Johnson, Josh Bush
The Associated Press

The NFL is America’s best pro league. But when it comes to player development it might be the worst.

Without a minor league to truly separate the wheat from the chaff like baseball, hockey and basketball, the NFL is very political when it comes to who makes rosters. The lion’s share of personnel decisions are made before training camps start. Most teams probably enter camp with something like 50 of the 53 roster already spots decided.

When it comes to NFL player personnel, self-fulfilling prophecies usually dictate. Generally players picked in the first three or four rounds of the draft are locks to make the team, whether they enjoy good training camps/preseasons or not.

Baseball and hockey have it right. You earn you way up to the roster by matriculating through the minors based on your production, not your draft status.

The NFL needs a developmental league. Too much talent falls by the wayside due to rushed assessments and no league for players to grow.

In training camp, you get the sense that the late round picks and undrafted free agents need to walk on water to hang around – almost perform perfectly. And the high round picks make myriad mistakes without it hurting their standing.

Jerry Rice wasn’t very good as a rookie with the San Francisco 49ers, but was a first round pick, so he was given ample time to work out the kinks, and turned into perhaps the NFL’s greatest receiver ever.

If you are a considered a long shot and have a couple of bad practices, you are probably not going to hang around long. You aren’t given time to work out the kinks.

Too often in NFL buildings, long shots aren’t allowed to be better than anointed high draft picks, perhaps do to general managers very concerned with their draft records.

And making things worse is how much practice time and hitting has been cut back due to the one “win” the players got in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) signed in 2011. True, less contact in the spring and summer works well for the player’s bodies. But it’s bad for long shots who get very few reps with much shorter practices. How can you show what you can do with scant reps? In 2016 training camps, some prospects hardly get on the field. There just isn’t enough time.

On May 15, 49ers running back Jarryd Hayne retired from the NFL. The former rugby star trying his hand at football walked away because he couldn’t get on the field enough to improve. Hayne said he will only come back to the NFL if they start a minor league.

“I need to be getting game time and you just can’t get that over there [in the NFL] because of the way it works,” Hayne told the New Zealand Herald. “If there was a second division team where I could get those mental reps of being on the field, 100 percent I’d go back to the NFL.”

So after two seasons with the 49ers, he decided to go back to rugby.

Why NFL owners refuse to start a minor league is a mystery. Perhaps they don’t want to spend the money. When they had one, NFL Europe, it was a great tool for player development.

Afterthought quarterbacks such as Kurt Warner and Jake Delhomme got extensive game action in which they honed their skills and showed NFL teams they were starting material. They both ended up taking teams to the Super Bowls.

Quarterbacks need games to develop, and it’s unfair to teammates and fans to throw rookies into action prematurely. It usually leads to a lot of losses and unwatchable football.

The Jets had a defensive lineman named Brandon Moore. They decided to move him to the offensive line, and sent him to Europe for two years to play games at guard, and he turned into a Pro Bowl offensive lineman. The Denver Broncos took a college tight end, Matt Lepsis, made him a left tackle, sent him to Europe, and he ended up starting for them for a decade.

The NFL is gold standard when it comes to pro sports leagues. But when it comes to player development, they need to raise the bar.

There is too much anointing, and not enough of a meritocracy the way the system is set up. The NFL is in dire need of a developmental league.