Free-market football

It’s time for the NFL to launch a developmental league

            Word is the New Orleans Saints have been meeting with multiple quarterbacks leading up to the coming NFL Draft. Supposedly the team had lunch on Wednesday with Memphis QB Paxton Lynch, and is set to meet Michigan State’s Connor Cook and Indiana’s Nate Sudfeld.

            Why? Who knows why; the Saints could have multiple reasons from gauging the maturity and readiness of quarterback prospects moving from the college ranks to the pros to establishing reports on future opponents to evaluating if one of these guys might be worth using a high-round draft pick to procure.

            The Saints own six picks in this year’s draft, to be held April 28-30 in Chicago, including the 12th selection in the first round, as well as the overall 47th (second round), 78th (third), 112th (fourth), 152nd (fifth), and 237th (seventh) picks. The team doesn’t have a selection in the sixth round because they traded it last year to select cornerback Damian Swann in the fifth round.

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            The Saints got value out of Swann, who played in seven games and started two. But can they say the same about their third round pick, QB Garrett Grayson, who didn’t play a down last season? It’s hard to say. Sure he practiced with the team, but he was entrenched as the team’s third-string option. The vast majority of practice snaps go to the starters, with a handful going to second stringers, and crumbs to the third-stringers. 

            Grayson made approximately $435,000 his rookie year; so he didn’t break the bank. And the year gave him time to adjust to life in the NFL and learn head coach Sean Payton’s system under a master technician and perennial Pro Bowler But does the team’s brain trust really know what they have in him? Would a draft pick be worth using to bring in another quarterback to compete to potentially be one of Drew Brees’ backups? Would it mean the third-round pick the Saints used to get Grayson, that could have been used to get a greater need – a defensive pass rusher or offensive lineman, was wasted?

            I ask because in the lead up to last year’s draft experts compared Grayson to Brees, saying despite his 6’2” build, Grayson is accurate and his throwing mechanics and proper weight transfer allow him to drive the ball to his receiver. He started 35 games at Colorado State, and his production improved each season. But has he markedly advanced?

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            It seems time the NFL’s corporate leaders and owners would launch a developmental league to give young players an opportunity to get additional practice, but, more importantly, actual game time, where they may see live action and be better evaluated against professional level talent.

            Only a handful of college players have the opportunity to play professional football, and the Canadian and Arena leagues do not offer an apples-to-apples comparison to properly evaluate prospective players.

            It seems that a model based on the launch and expansion of the NBA D-League would be optimal. The NBA’s “minor-league” started with eight teams in 2001 and expand to 15 within four years. Today one-in-three NBA players previously played on one of the D-league’s team’s, which are either independently owned and single-team affiliated or owned by an NBA team.

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            It seems an eight-week league played in the spring between the Super Bowl and the Draft would give many former draftees, waived and undrafted players an arena they don’t currently have to showcase their talents and abilities. It would give teams an opportunity to develop players with much needed playing time and make investing in player contracts that much more palatable.

            The NFL tried a similar concept in the 1990s. The World League was based in Europe, however. In order to succeed it needs to be based in the United States in football hungry cities without an NFL franchise – San Antonio, Las Vegas, St. Louis, Orlando, Memphis, Portland, Salt Lake City, Birmingham, Oklahoma City, and Omaha – that would support a minimum of four regular season and two to three playoff games.

            Plus with the proliferation of media options, including the NFL Network, and related advertising avenues, it seems a natural a football minor league to be a magnet for fanatics’ interest and advertisers’ dollars.



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