The National Football League is the last remaining major professional team sport in the United States to lack a true affiliated minor league or developmental system. It would seem that this is likely to stay that way until an upstart league is able to suit team needs and desires.
Currently, the NFL employs a surrogate developmental league through its associations with the NCAA, which, unlike the other major professional sports, enlists prohibitive restrictions on draft eligibility that prevents players from entering the professional ranks at an earlier—i.e. less ‘developed’—stage in their career.
The proposed Fall Experimental Football League hopes to establish itself as the seed that eventually blossoms into a full-fledged, affiliated developmental league for the NFL, but it will take quite a long time for that to germinate.
The MLB and NHL have an elaborate minor league infrastructure, with developmental teams directly associated with the major league’s professional teams. These farm systems have an immense pool of talent nationwide, which is quite honestly something that football lacks, and needs to appropriately structure before a proper developmental league can be installed.
The NBA, on the other hand, is a more recent example of successfully establishing such a league. The D-League as currently constructed only dates back to 2001, and has more than doubled in size since then with 18 teams, some of which are affiliated with multiple professional franchises.
A true developmental league for the NFL would be more complicated, if not simply for the fact that each professional team requires 53 players. But the motivation for building one should certainly be there.
The thing that the FXFL currently lacks, but to which they aspire, is professional club affiliation. As currently constructed, it will merely be another league of football players from which the NFL collectively could choose to harvest.
NFL teams, I suspect, would be more interested in a true farm system, in which they can assign their own players to the minor league for appropriate in-game developmental experience, rather than just sitting on the practice squad.
Think of how much talent is overlooked every summer either because there’s simply not enough practice reps to go around or because there’s no room left to allow that player the time needed to develop.
These players, generally through no fault of their own, are passed over because their teams don’t have the resources to develop them.
Imagine the progress that a player such as Landry Jones could have made in a developmental league, with the Pittsburgh Steelers able to call him up to the NFL at any time should the need for his services arise.
How many fewer draft picks might go wasted if NFL teams had the luxury of time and the ability to provide their raw prospects with much-needed in-game experience?
How much simpler roster battles might be, how much easier might injuries be to withstand, if teams had the opportunity keep these competitors in their system, rather than being forced to make difficult cuts that completely sever a player’s relationship with the organization?
A new league will be great for unemployed football players, of course. It gives them the opportunity to earn a wage, and perhaps it can serve as an audition for the NFL teams. But it may take more than that before those teams are convinced of its value to themselves.