The NFL is the only major American sports league without a developmental program
If there's one question that the NFL doesn't get asked enough, it's this: Why don't they have a minor league program of some kind? The closest that they came to having one was NFL Europe, which shut down after the 2007 season. Considering the amount of talent that comes through the league every year, it would be wise to have a farm system of sorts for the players who don't make 53-man rosters in September, something that goes beyond the small practice squads each team maintains. MLB (AAA, AA, A), the NBA (G-League), NHL (AHL, ECHL), MLS (USL Championship), and even the NASCAR Cup Series (Xfinity Series) all have a minor league system of some kind.
Through the years, there have been rumblings about a potential NFL spring league for developmental purposes, but nothing ever materialized. But the idea for an NFL developmental league is certainly a good one. The NFL can have a spring league utilizing all 32 teams, or create a separate league using new teams as NFL Europe did. Either way, it's well overdue for the league to have a developmental circuit.
With the 2020 NFL Draft complete, the league has a new wave of players coming into the league. But despite that, there are still players left without a team. Here are five reasons why the NFL needs a developmental league.
1. Not every player gets drafted or signed
There were 255 total selections in this year's draft, but far more players are talented enough to give pro football a go. Even after the draft and undrafted free agency, there are still players without a team to call home. Having a minor league system in place can give these players opportunities to prove that they belong.
2. Lessons learned from NFL Europe
While NFL Europe lasted for 16 years (1991-2007), it may not have been the greatest idea to host American football in soccer-crazed Europe during the stretch run of the UEFA Champions League season (April through June). Especially when baseball is underway on this side of the pond. And because of the time difference between the U.S. and Europe, the games would start between early morning and early midday. I imagine that the NFL would change things up for a new spring league.
Like other spring leagues, the ideal time would be to host the games between the Super Bowl and the draft here in the states. The NFL could keep their regular season viewers tuned in during that time of year.
3. Player development
This would be the main reason for having a minor league system. With the spread offense dominating college football, it takes away certain attributes from various positions across the field. For example; quarterbacks lacking the mechanics to play in a pro-style system, tight ends who need to improve their blocking skills, receivers with limited route knowledge, offensive linemen who need to improve their run blocking, etc. Having a developmental league can help players who need to improve in these areas.
4. The failure of other leagues
Since the 1980s, a multitude of leagues who either labeled themselves as an "alternative" league, developmental league, or flat out tried to compete with the NFL, have all failed. The USFL, United Football League, Arena Football League, Arena Football 2, the NIFL, the Fall Experimental Football League, Alliance of American Football, and both versions of the XFL (among others) have come and gone. Most of these leagues have faltered due to financial issues, but other reasons such as failed expansion, too much expansion, teams folding, low television ratings, struggles to attract talent, or in the case of the 2020 XFL, COVID-19.
While the NFL is waiting out the pandemic like the rest of us, the league has already proved that it can overcome the other issues. Some of those issues, in fact, don't affect the NFL at all. With those leagues all gone by the wayside, that means even fewer opportunities for players to hone their craft. The only other option at the moment is the Canadian Football League, but the NFL can't count on the CFL to help develop new talent. The CFL's rules and player salaries are vastly different from the NFL's. And the CFL appears to not be immune from other factors as the league's commissioner stated earlier this month that it's very likely the 2020 season will be canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.
5. Another way for the NFL to make money
If finding another avenue to bring in better talent to the league isn't enough to entice the league, hopefully money will. The league can sell tickets to these games, hawk merchandise, and easily find a network to broadcast the games (including just stashing them on NFL Network). With "the shield" behind the brand, anything is possible, and the league can turn some kind of profit from it.
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.