Does The NFL Need A Developmental League?

By: Tim Van Blarcom, Feature Writer

Follow Tim on Twitter @Tim_VB


Newly appointed NFL director of football operations, Troy Vincent, made news this week as he mentioned the possibility of an NFL developmental league in a statement to the Associated Press.

“We need to keep the pipeline of talent flowing, and that means for all areas of our game… I am responsible to look at whatever the competition committee looks at and that includes a developmental league,” Vincent said.

He went on to elaborate, “For all this football talent around, we have to create another platform for developing it.  Maybe it’s an academy… maybe it’s a spring league.  We’ll look to see if there is an appetite for it.”

Vincent’s above remarks were a part of a larger statement on possible changes and additions to the NFL from the competition committee and NFL office.

The question should not be if there’s an appetite for a developmental league but what is taking so long for it to happen.

Google Images

Arena Football League; Google Images

In North America alone, there are 10 professional football leagues outside of the NFL including the Canadian Football League (CFL), and the Arena Football League (AFL).  There are also over two dozen semi-professional and amateur leagues scattered across the continent, without mentioning all of the international leagues in existence.

Each year, hundreds of young men declare for the NFL draft and participate in the Combine and Regional Combine with the hopes of being one of the 256 drafted by an NFL team.  Even if they manage to get drafted or picked up as an undrafted free agent, NFL teams can only keep 53 men on their active roster during the year with many of those spaces going to their veteran players.

In general, rookies need to be able to contribute immediately and beat out veteran competition in order to even make an NFL roster and be allowed to develop into better players.  NFL rosters expand to 90 men between the draft and the start of the regular season.  During offseason workouts and training camp is the only time during which the rookie players can develop and attempt to make an active roster.

Dawud Lane/

Dawud Lane/

So during the summer, each NFL team almost doubles in size with handpicked players that they think can be competitive and play in the NFL, only to cut back down to 53 for the regular season.  The rest of the players that don’t make a roster spend the rest of the year training by themselves and waiting in limbo for other players to get injured.

It’s safe to say between the 1,184 training camp bodies, the hundreds of veteran players that live on the unrestricted free agent list, and the dozens of professional, semi-professional, and amateur leagues, there is plenty of appetite  among potential NFL players to fuel a developmental league.

In fact, a developmental league would actually give prospects the place and time to develop and achieve their potential.  The more players and talent that an NFL team can cultivate increases the quality of the NFL product as a whole.


Broncos Training Camp; Google Images

The NBA and NHL have development leagues, MLB has an extensive minor league system, but the NFL makes due with only a small practice squad for each team.  The NFL practice squad does allow team’s to try and develop young players but these players can be signed by any NFL team during the year with the current team having no say.

An NFL developmental league would allow NFL teams to retain the rights to their own drafted and developed players without keeping them on their active rosters.  When a player gets injured, they wouldn’t have to sign a random free agent with no ties to the team’s system, coaches, or teammates, but just call up a man from their developmental league.

A developmental league would also help out veteran players.  Developing rookies would not take their roster spots if they had another league to be placed in, injured veterans could potentially have a place to rehab injuries without being out for an entire year or losing their roster spot, and journeymen veterans would be more likely to have longer deals in one place instead of constantly moving across country.

A developmental league will also give smaller cities in country a chance to bring NFL action to their home.  Thirty-two new teams would mean 32 new sources of revenue for 32 owners, and 32 cities.  Even if the NFL just adopted teams from the Arena Football League or professional leagues, the new NFL brand would be a blessing on these franchises and bring new fans and revenues.  These teams would now get NFL caliber talent being sent their way for development and NFL fans would watch and go to games in order to monitor the fresh young talent headed to their favorite NFL team soon.

NFL fans clearly have an appetite for as much football as they can get.  Just look at Fantasy Football, attendance at pre-season games and training camp, and the record-breaking ratings of televised games every year.  Minor league games for MLB, NHL, and NBA also bring in regular attendance and they are not the most popular sport in the USA.

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The Currently Unused RFK Stadium; Google Images

The logistics of creating or adopting a developmental league seem to be the only sticking point for the NFL.  Beyond finding space and investors for a developmental league, the NFL would need to establish a fair and efficient plan for creating a developmental team for each NFL team and populating its roster.  Each NFL team would certainly want to appoint their own coaching staff and sign a new roster of players for their new team.

The NFL could have each team adopt a team from the already established professional teams, create the team on a rolling basis adding more and more spaces to the practice squad until it becomes a full developmental team, or even a full draft to populate their developmental team from scratch.

So the players with talent exist and want to play, the teams would have a chance to develop their own talent from within their organization, more veterans and rookies would be able to have longer contracts and homes, the NFL would expand their brand and tap new markets and revenue, and the fans would get even more football to watch.

In Troy Vincent’s words, the appetite is there and now it is up to the NFL to make it happen to the benefit of the teams, fans, and most importantly, itself.


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