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The All Blacks who would have the best shot at making an NFL roster

By Ben Smith
Rieko Ioane and Tamaiti Williams of the All Blacks leave a New Zealand All Blacks training session at Stade Jacques-Chaban-Delmas on September 22, 2023 in Bordeaux, France. (Photo by Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Wales star Louis Rees-Zammit will pause his rugby career for a shot at the NFL’s international player pathway. He isn’t the first rugby prospect to try, but few have actually made an NFL roster after attempting such a switch.

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But the risk is worth the reward if Rees-Zammit can actually make a roster; he would be in line to significantly increase his earnings power.

England winger Christian Wade was a high-profile switch who scored a touchdown on his first carry in an NFL pre-season fixture, but didn’t end up making a 53-man roster.

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English schoolboy rugby prodigy Tyrese Johnson-Fisher made the move to the US early for an opportunity in the collegiate system, but an NFL career didn’t eventuate.

From down under, there are two major successful stories but from rugby league.

Former NRL star Jarryd Hayne actually made the San Francisco 49ers roster as punt returner after a stunning pre-season, featuring in six regular season games but was cut during the season after issues with run blocking and fumbles.

Former Australian rugby league prospect Jordan Mailata is the most successful code-convert, with the former Rabbitohs junior completing the international player pathway, becoming a starting tackle with the Philadelphia Eagles and banking a USD$64 million four-year contract extension in 2021.

From a New Zealand perspective, which athletes would conceivably have the best chance at making an NFL career had they made the move? Whilst the likelihood of a successful switch is low, there are a few intriguing prospects.

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Rieko Ioane – WR 

Described by conditioning coach Nic Gill as the best athlete he has seen through the All Blacks, Ioane is blessed with a rare combination of speed, power and size.

At 6’2 and 103kg Ioane is actually heavier than the average NFL wide receiver at around 90kg but is lean like most tall wide recievers. With his height Ioane would be a candidate to play outside the numbers as a WR1 or WR2. If he didn’t need the extra weight he could potentially be even quicker on the grid iron.

Ioane is perhaps the only athlete in New Zealand rugby that has the physical tools to make a push as a WR, but is too old now at 26 years old to undergo a switch.

Learning to run the route tree and digesting a huge NFL playbook, understanding defensive coverages, learning release techniques, locating the football, it’s all complex. It would take years to learn and turn into second nature, while getting to an NFL standard is no easy task.

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But as a pure athlete, yes, Ioane fits the prototype.

Caleb Clarke – RB

One of the most destructive runners in New Zealand, he is a power runner who could potentially make a living as a running back based on his athleticism.

A couple of years ago a Reddit user extrapolated Clarke’s electronically timed 40-metre sprint of 4.87 seconds into NFL-metrics, the 40-yard dash. In rugby boots on grass, the user calculated Clarke effectively ran a 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds.

A time between 4.3-4.6 is considered fast for wide receiver and running back prospects. As an example, Odell Beckham Jr ran 4.43 at the NFL combine in his trial.

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The kicker for Clarke is he is much bigger at 108kg than most of those skilled positions, and he ran his 40 without training for it and on a rugby field.

The Blues wing has such an explosive base and seemingly low centre of gravity despite being 6’2. He seems built for YAC (yards after contact).

Having developed catching skills through rugby, becoming a reliable catching option out of the backfield as an RB would be conceivable for Clarke.

It would be the detail that would be decisive factor in a successful move, with blocking schemes, playbooks all requiring deep knowledge.

From the looks of his arm strength that showed a 60-metre cannon, he could pull off trick plays too.

He attempted a code switch for 7s but a high-risk, high-reward NFL switch might have been a better option. It certainly would have paid better.

Tamiati Williams – OL

Lineman don’t grow on trees and few humans have the necessary size to play on the lines in the NFL. Last year’s All Black debutant Williams has that size at 6’5 and 140kg. The 23-year-old is a special athlete that doesn’t come around often in rugby.

His listed weight is exactly the average for an NFL offensive lineman, whilst his height is actually above average for the position.

Williams seems like an explosive type for his size too, carrying the ball with speed for a big man. Still just 23-years-old, Williams would be the best candidate from New Zealand’s professional rugby players to go through the NFL’s international player pathway.

As Jordan Mailata’s contract shows, tackles get paid big money to protect the quarterback. It may just be something he should seriously consider too.

He would earn more than his entire rugby career in less than half an NFL season as a starting lineman.

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Poorfour 5 hours ago
The AI advantage: How the next two Rugby World Cups will be won

AI models are really just larger and less transparent variants of the statistical models that have been in use since Moneyball was invented. And a big difference between the Icahn centre’s results and AI today is that ChatGPT-like Large Language Models can explain (to some degree) how they reached their conclusions. In terms of what impact they will have, I suspect it will have two primary impacts: 1) It will place a premium on coaching creativity 2) It will lead to more selections that baffle fans and pundits. Analysts will be able to run the models both ways: they will see their own team’s and players’ weaknesses and strengths as well as the opposition’s. So they will have a good idea at what the other team will be targeting and the decisive difference may well be which coaches are smart enough to think of a gameplan that the other side didn’t identify and prepare for. For players, it places a premium on three key things: 1) Having a relatively complete game with no major weaknesses (or the dedication to work on eliminating them) 2) Having the tactical flexibility to play a different game every week 3) Having a point of difference that is so compelling that there isn’t a defence for it. (3) is relatively rare even among pro players. There have been only a handful of players over the years where you knew what they were going to do and the problem was stopping it - Lomu would be the classic example. And even when someone does have that, it’s hard to sustain. Billy Vunipola in his prime was very hard to stop, but fell away quite badly when the toll on his body began to accumulate. So coaches will look for (1) - a lack of exploitable weaknesses - and (2) - the ability to exploit others’ weaknesses - ahead of hoping for (3), at least for the majority of the pack. Which is likely to mean that, as with the original Moneyball, competent, unshowy players who do the stuff that wins matches will win out over outrageous talents who can’t adapt to cover their own weaknesses. Which will leave a lot of people on the sidelines sputtering over the non-inclusion of players whose highlights reels are spectacular, but whose lowlight reels have been uncovered by AI… at least until the point where every fan has access to a sporting analysis AI.

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