NFL commissioner Roger Goodell probably won’t shake hands with multiple foreign-born prospects each year on draft night like his NBA counterpart, David Stern.
It could be happening soon, though. After a record five international prospects were selected in the 2012 draft, none higher than the third round, as many as five could be selected in the first two rounds Thursday and Friday.
The NFL’s efforts to market the game around the world could get a boost from this recent group of foreign-born players.
“It certainly is a good sign for the growth of the game,” said ESPN analyst Bill Polian, a former NFL general manager and personnel executive. “More importantly, it’s about their athletic ability.”
NFL teams are prepared to take a chance on some of these gifted-but-raw players from around the world. The top international prospects are BYU defensive end Ezekiel “Ziggy” Ansah (Ghana), SMU defensive end Margus Hunt (Estonia), Alabama defensive tackle Jesse Williams (Australia) and FSU defensive end Bjoern Werner (Germany) and FSU offensive tackle Menelik Watson (Great Britain).
The group is unique among international players because all are highly rated prospects, and none are kickers. The common thread among all except Werner is their rapid rise from football novices to legitimate professional prospects.
Still, it’s not clear if the recent influx of international players in the draft is the start of a long-term trend.
American football isn’t as popular outside North America. The infrastructure elsewhere isn’t as advanced: The sport requires more athletes, money and specialized coaching than basketball. It’s also harder for players outside North America to gain notice from college coaches in the United States.
Most of the top foreign-born prospects in this NFL draft stumbled into football from other sports. Hunt, for example, won gold medals in the shot put and discus at the 2006 world junior championships.
Hunt enrolled at SMU with the hope that the school would restart its track-and-field program, but when that didn’t happen, Hunt switched to football. He joined the team as a walk-on and eventually became a starter at defensive end. He wowed scouts with a sensational workout at this year’s combine, where he showed world-class athletic ability for his size (6-foot-8, 277 pounds).
“He’s a big, impressive kid that I think down the road will be a heck of a player,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said.
Werner, a defensive end, has the most extensive football background of the top international prospects. He played for a club team in Germany before he took advantage of a program that provides opportunities for top international players to play in the United States and enrolled in a prep school in Connecticut.
Werner said he started playing flag football when he was 12 years old after a classmate invited him to join his club team. He started playing tackle football when he was 15 years old.
“It was just the most amazing feeling, just hitting people,” Werner said. “I just fell in the love with the game.”
Werner benefited from the relatively advanced development of organized American football in Europe. Williams played rugby and local club football in Australia before making his way to Alabama via a junior college in Arizona.
By contrast Ansah, who attended BYU to play basketball, said he had “zero” knowledge of football before joining the school’s team. Watson didn’t pick up football until after he played basketball at Marist College in New York and also tried boxing.
These international prospects offset their lack of football experience compared with their American peers by using universal athletic talent.
“They are in the petri dish now; they are being molded,” NFL Network analyst Charles Davis said. “Some things are not as innate to them, but talent is what it is. In some cases you are taking a leap (based) on talent but, guess what? You are doing that with American kids, too.”