Isaac Keys is one of seven Packers hoping to benefit from NFL Europe.
In the NFL, you can set your watches to the events on every team's calendar -- the start of free agency, the Scouting Combine, the draft, June 1 cuts, the opening of training camps -- all the way through to the Super Bowl.
Nestled into this high-profile schedule is a two-week window that falls between the end of post-draft minicamps and June 1 cuts. This is the time when personnel people take a look at potential free-agent talents playing in the NFL Europe League.
It's easy for the cynic to sit back and minimize this developmental league as an afterthought, but that would be a mistake no decent pro personnel director is going to make. When a "minor league," as some would call it, develops quarterbacks like Kurt Warner and Brad Johnson and a receiver like Brian Finneran, should any person responsible for securing talent for his football team take that attitude?
During my tenure with the New York Jets, I believed in the NFL Europe and what the NFL's director of football operations, John Beake, had built. When Beake was a key administrator for the Denver Broncos, he sent tight end Matt Lepsis to Europe and the former Colorado Buffalo returned as a starting offensive tackle. Denver also kept an eye on a failing linebacker named Keith Traylor, who went to Europe to become a defensive tackle as a last resort to save his career. Two NFL teams and millions of dollars later, Traylor has NFL Europe to thank for saving his career.
The pros of NFL Europe
There are people in the NFL who don't believe NFL Europe is a place where talent can be found. As I spoke to personnel people and coaches around the league, there are two schools of thought. The non-believers say these guys already failed in the NFL, that if they were any good, a coach would have kept them home for minicamp, or after a season in Europe, they would be too tired to compete for a full NFL season. The other group, which I've always been a part of, sees the great upside. I see the NFL Europe League as a fertile training ground to discover who can play and just as importantly, who can't. Let me point out a few things I see going on:
- Football players have to play football to get better at their trade. A quarterback who plays in the spring league has the opportunity to throw under pressure, learn gameplans, manage a clock, play in a two-minute environment and deal with sideline adjustments. None of that happens back at an NFL complex during the offseason.
- Learn a new position. Some college players, especially from small schools, are out of position for the pro game. I was in the NFL long enough to know that position coaches don't have the time or desire to go all the way back to the fundamentals to change an athlete's position. They want them ready to go from college. Europe is a great place for this, and history is on my side. There are 225 NFL players who have played in NFL Europe before making an NFL roster.
- For the most part, small-college players haven't played the game fast enough to handle NFL speed. Going to Europe gives these players the intermediate step to catch up and come back to an NFL camp ready to compete. Some of the best NFL Europe players this year come from colleges like Catawba, Lehigh, Grambling, Buffalo and Connecticut.
- The NFL roster exemption program for participation in NFL Europe makes it a no-brainer to use this league as a place to at least get more players to an NFL preseason camp. Let me explain how it works.
Remember these names
This season, NFL teams had their allocated player commitment reduced from six players to three, which in effect, caused more unrestricted free agents to make NFL Europe rosters. The NFL also rated each player a team sent to Europe. For every 'A' player sent, an NFL club can sign a free agent from Europe for training camp and it won't count against the preseason roster.
There are 85 free agents playing in Europe, along with the 160 allocated players. Some of those players are really presenting a case for themselves to get to the NFL in 2003. After speaking with a number of pro personnel people, here are some of the candidates who could get signed on June 16, the day after the World Bowl.
- Phil Stambaugh, QB, Berlin
Stambaugh, who played for Lehigh University, went through a camp with the Buffalo Bills, a season in NFL Europe as an allocated player from the New Orleans Saints and a season as the Jacksonville Jaguars' third quarterback. He now leads the class of NFL Europe free-agent signal-callers.
- Jonas Lewis, RB, Frankfurt
Lewis has six rushing touchdowns and almost 500 yards of offense.
- Jordan Younger, DB/KR, Amsterdam
Younger played for the University of Connecticut. He was in the Arizona Cardinals' camp right after college in 2000 and played in Europe for two seasons. According to one NFL pro scout, Younger "has brought his game to the point he can compete for a DB job in the NFL and contribute on special teams as a returner and cover man."
- Calvin Spears, CB, Frankfurt
Spears is just 23 years old and played at Grambling. He was a 2002 free agent with the Cleveland Browns.
- Jonathan Brown, DE, Amsterdam
He was a first-round pick in the NFL Europe free-agent draft and has 4½ sacks.
- Dave Pruce, T, Frankfurt
Pruce played at the University of Buffalo. When I saw him at Buffalo's camp right out of college, he just wasn't ready to compete. At 6-foot-8, 300 pounds and just learning how to play this game, he is on a number of pro boards to be signed.
- Dwayne Ledford, T, Rhein Fire
He has bounced around a few NFL summer camps and was never good enough to make a roster. According to pro scouts, he has improved enough to be looked at again. Where else was a guy going to get 250 live pass-protection situations if he didn't play in NFL Europe?
- Matt Hatchette, WR, Amsterdam
Hatchette is older than most of the players mentioned, but he's the most productive receiver in the league and has demonstrated to NFL people he will make sacrifices to get back in the NFL. He will be in a camp this summer.
- Jason Short, LB/DE, Barcelona
According to someone in the league office, this guy is a good fit for a 3-4 team looking for an outside linebacker/pass rusher.
- Antuan Simmons, CB, Barcelona
Simmons was the first name mentioned when I asked someone from the league about players to look for. Interestingly enough, he wasn't mentioned by the first three NFL clubs I spoke with when going over their list of potential guys to sign.
There are a couple more things to remember about NFL Europe this year.
Since 1995, the average age of the players in the league has dropped three years. NFL teams want to recruit younger players, and the spring league has accommodated this. Also, 100 of the 119 NFL officials have experience in NFL Europe. Just like with players, there is no substitute for experience.
An NFL club can sign a 'national' player and get a roster exemption. The top kickers in Europe this spring are national players and a team in need of competition at the kicking position will head across the Atlantic to grab one.
If an NFL team allocated a player classified as a 'B' player and that player plays more than 50 percent of the plays, including special teams, the parent NFL team gets another roster exemption to sign one of the 85 free agents in the league.
Finally, is the NFL Europe League a place to find a franchise player? Usually not, although St. Louis and Tampa Bay, who both won Super Bowls with NFL Europe QBs, could feel differently about that. But if clubs are looking for some cheap, hungry, tough guys with a burning desire to play -- and who isn't looking for those type of players these days -- then Europe is where they should spend their evaluation hours these days.
The fact that 13 percent of the NFL's players in 2002 had playing experience in Europe is reason enough for most pro directors to spend May watching game tapes from across the pond.