NFL could benefit from D-League

Live-action playing time key to evaluating talent

            This week news broke that the New Orleans Pelicans would look beyond West St. Tammany Parish, the preferred choice to be home to its soon-to-come semi-pro league team. Formerly called the “D” League, short for developmental, it is now the NBA “G” League, in honor of title sponsor Gatorade.

            The Pels, currently only one of only eight NBA teams without a minor league affiliate, will add a team to the league in the 2018-19 season. Baton Rouge; Jackson, Mississippi; Mobile, Alabama; Pensacola, Florida; and Shreveport, Louisiana, have all expressed interest in landing the team, which will be owned by Pelicans and New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson. St. Tammany could still put a proposal together to build a new 3,000 to 5,000-seat arena to host the team’s games. The Pelicans have set a June 7 deadline for complete proposals from each location.

            The NBA D-League will have 26 teams competing in 50 regular season games plus a postseason in the 2017-2018 season, which runs from November to April.

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            Teams are using the D-League to groom players for the NBA. Nearly 40 percent of current “Association” players have D-League experience.

            These are numbers that should get the NFL’s attention. After all, unless they are stellar, draftees and rookie free agents don’t get much of an opportunity to see live practice time, much less, actual game time. A strong semi-pro system would give NFL teams the ability to gauge the maturity and readiness of prospects looking to break into to the pros.

            Saints third-string QB Garrett Grayson is a perfect example of a player who would benefit from playing in a developmental league. Except for preseason snaps, he hasn’t played a down in a game since he was drafted two years ago. He’s been entrenched as the team’s third-string option, even surviving being cut, clearing waivers and re-signing to the team’s practice squad. Which is a bit of a misnomer. The vast majority of practice snaps go to the starters, with a handful going to second stringers. The third-stringers generally get crumbs and usually run the scout team, mimicking the upcoming team’s offense for the Saints first-string defense to practice against. 

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            Before he was drafted, experts compared Grayson to current saints QB and legend Drew 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? It’s hard to say if the team’s brain trust really know what they have in him, or if he’s learned head coach Sean Payton’s system well enough to eventually step in for master technician Brees.

            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.

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            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.

            It seems an eight-week league played in the spring 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 that would support a minimum of four regular season and possibly 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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