Ireland’s Charlie Smyth has taken a big step toward becoming a fully-fledged NFL player. Smyth, who comes from a Gaelic football background, put pen to paper on a three-year contract with the New Orleans Saints, who were the 2010 Super Bowl champions. Now, the next target on Smyth’s journey is to impress enough to take a spot on the Saints’ roster for the beginning of the 2024 NFL season, which starts in September.

International Player Pathway

For the first time, this year’s International Player Pathway allowed specialists to be entered into the program. Other than finding a way to enter the NFL through a college route, there is no other natural pathway for international players to get to the NFL.

The International Player Pathway system offers non-US players the chance to make the grade in the NFL. It is an intensive 10-week crash course program, usually for sports people from non-American football backgrounds, that drills as many of the necessary skills of the game into players as possible.

Players can earn a contract with a franchise from there, but that doesn’t guarantee a spot in the regular season squad. Places still need to be earned, and players who fail to make the cut will serve their contracts on the practice squad of their franchise.

Each franchise from the 2024 NFL season has an extra spot on their practice squad for a player from the International Player Pathway. This opens the door of opportunity wide for international players like Smyth to take their chance.

Practice squad players still receive a good salary and have the potential to be called up to the main 53-man roster at any point during the season. The first-ever player to come through the NFL International Player Pathway and make an NFL roster was the UK’s Efe Obada, a Nigerian-born defenceman who earned a spot with the Carolina Panthers in 2017.

Chasing Dan Whelan

In 2023, Dan Whelan was the centre of attention as he became the first Irish-born player in over 40 years to appear in the NFL. His path differed from Smyth’s as Whelan moved to the USA in his early teens. A punter for the Green Bay Packers, Whelan debuted against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field in 2023 after getting the call-up over the incumbent nine-season veteran kicker Pat O’Donnell.

However, Whelan’s journey to the top wasn’t straightforward, as he had initially signed with the New Orleans Saints but wasn’t selected there, so he eventually moved to the rival XFL organisation. There, he put in some stand-out performances, which resulted in interest from the Packers, who grabbed him as a free agent.

Whelan made 17 appearances for the Green Bay Packers in the 2023 NFL season, which included the NFL playoffs. He recorded 57 punts for an average of 46.2 yards per kick, just shy of the all-time franchise record of 46.5 for a season.

Early Sporting Life

Charlie Smyth, a Newry native, played GAA with Mayobridge and had a flourishing career as a young Gaelic football star, a sport which he had played since he was four years of age. His big breakthrough in Gaelic football was in 2020 when, playing as goalkeeper, he was part of Down’s Ulster Under-20 Championship team that reached the semi-finals.

The following year, he would help his team lift the Ulster Under-20 title, their first in more than a decade. In 2023, he earned a place on the Down county football team.

While he was playing Gaelic football, Smyth never received payment. It was for the passion, and love of the sport. He had trained and worked as a primary school teacher, teaching the Irish language, but never gave up on his dream across the Atlantic.

Changing Times

While Smyth was up early in the morning watching kickers in NFL action from his home in northeastern Ireland, he took things a little further than most casual watchers. He fancied a piece of the action and told himself he could make it.

As an 18-year-old in 2019, options were limited for people like Smyth. The NFL did not have as broad a reach across the globe as it currently has. The International Player Pathway, introduced in 2017, was designed specifically to extend that reach, to not only help players from abroad make the cut but also to raise the sport’s popularity. However, it took some time to grow.

Since Dublin native Neil O’Donoghue retired at the end of the 1985 NFL season, no Irish-born player had appeared in the NFL until the aforementioned Whelan did last year. This did not deter Smyth, who emailed the NFL directly, from inquiring whether his GAA skills would be adaptable to the NFL and asked if he could be given a chance to shine.

He never got a response.

Now, just seven months after attending an event in Dublin hosted by Tadhg Leader, who is the IPP’s lead coach for kickers and punters, Smyth is on the brink of making it. He was just five of 20 selected kickers to move forward from Dublin to another tryout stage in England, ultimately leading to him ending up in the NFL Combine, which he had watched annually on television.

Along with Smyth, fellow GAA stars Rory Began and Mark Jackson were also part of this year’s International Player Pathway, and both performed at the NFL Combine in March. Unlike Smyth, neither received an offer.

Smyth’s Skills

In opting to chase his dream of playing in the NFL, Smyth’s skills were on show in the Scouting Combine, where he converted 12 of 16 attempts at goal. He then nailed eight out of 10 kicks during pro-day in Florida in March, and one of those was an impressive, eye-catching 60-yard effort. It was that pro-day performance that led to the interest from the Saints.

Distance and accuracy are key to Smyth pressing forward and taking over the kicking spot with the New Orleans Saints. His skills honed through free kicks in Gaelic football are a huge asset and should translate well to American football.

Playing as a goalkeeper in the GAA, Smyth’s natural ability to send the ball flying through the uprights above the goal from free kicks should put him in good stead. The goalposts in GAA are not unlike those he will be facing in the NFL.

During a remote press conference with a host of journalists after signing with the Saints, Smyth stated that he wasn’t there just to play on the practice squad; he was there because he wanted to play in the NFL and inspire other young players to follow in his footsteps. Smyth is the first Irish player to earn a contract in the NFL through the International Player Pathway.

Battle Of The Kickers

To get the main roster call-up, Smyth must battle the incumbent kicker, Blake Grupe. During pre-season, NFL rosters can be filled with up to 90 players. So, a sizable cut must be made to chop down the roster to just 53 at the start of the NFL season.

Smyth is in a personal duel with Grupe, who only took up the role for the first time last season. Grupe, a former Arkansas State and Notre Dame player replaced Will Lutz as the kicker for the New Orleans Saints at the start of the 2023 NFL season.

Grupe produced an average of 46 yards per kick across his 17 appearances for the Saints last year, with an 81% success rate in Field Goal attempts. That was much lower than the 88% that Lutz, the player he replaced, recorded with his new team, Denver Broncos, during the season.

Many of the NFL’s elite kickers, such as Brandon Aubrey (Dallas), Greg Zuerlein (New York Jets) and Nick Folk (Tennessee), all had a Field Goal average of at least 94% last term. Grupe’s rookie season was a little up and down, with room for improvement, but the Saints stuck with him all the way, and he did land 40 of 40 Extra-Point kicks in the 2023 season.

However, Grupe’s Field Goal stats hint that this is an area where Smyth can battle strongly against him.

Louis Rees-Zammit Steals The Headlines

The news of Smyth signing a contract with the New Orleans Saints was slightly overshadowed by another high-profile player on the International Player Pathway. Former Wales and Gloucester rugby star Louis Rees-Zammit signed on with an NFL franchise on the same day as Smyth put pen to paper.

Rees-Zammit was picked up by the back-to-back reigning champions, the Kansas City Chiefs. The Welshman, a fast and powerful winger, is looking to secure a spot as a running back, a position where he has been listed with the Chiefs.

The Chiefs have a set starter in Isaiah Pacheco on the spot, but there is potentially little depth behind him, which could give Rees-Zammit a shot. Like Smyth, Rees-Zammit impressed during pro-day, which included a 4.44-second 40-yard dash, the fifth fastest among backs in the NFL scouting combine.

Applauded for his commitment and effort, Rees-Zammit has been praised by NFL professionals, including the Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator Aden Durde, Britain’s first full-time pro-NFL coach. However, for Rees-Zammit, who reportedly drew interest from 12 franchises, his immediate future rests in the hands of the Kansas City Chiefs, who are looking for physicality and explosive athleticism.

In what could be a good turn of fortune, the introduction of a new kick-off rule in the NFL could work in Rees-Zammit’s favour. The new rule means that the receiving team must run it back if the ball lands between the 0 and 20-yard line from kickoff. This will empower powerful runners with the ball to try and make up ground, and that’s right up the Welshman’s alley.

Louis Rees-Zammit dropped the bombshell announcement that he was stepping away from rugby to try his hand at the NFL on the eve of the 2024 Six Nations championship. He made his Premiership rugby debut in 2019 with Gloucester and his international debut with Wales in October 2020. Rees-Zammit scored 14 tries for Wales in 32 appearances.

On the road to success

International players have generally found it difficult to build numbers in the NFL. The highest percentage of non-Americans to populate the NFL have come from Canada, but international players have taken their opportunities before, and nine international players have gone on to earn a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Thanks to impressing at the recent NFL trials, Smyth’s deal with the New Orleans Saints takes him a step closer to making his dream a reality. Smyth hopes to provide a platform to bring more international kickers to the league. There’s plenty of hard work ahead until the start of the new NFL season, but Smyth is on the road.

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