NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell spoke to USA TODAY Sports’ Tom Pelissero about how the league will implement changes in 2017 to speed up the game.
USA TODAY Sports
When organizers of the Spring League initially dreamed of forming a developmental football league, the idea was to hold a competitive academy for unheralded players with pro potential, giving them a forum to learn from former NFL coaches and compete in front of scouts.
That part will come to fruition when the league debuts next month with more than 100 NFL hopefuls taking part in the four-team league in West Virginia.
But the Spring League is also going to provide a last chance for a handful of NFL veterans trying to play their way back into the NFL.
Former Carolina Panthers and Dallas Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy, Super Bowl champion cornerback Brandon Browner and former first-round pick tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. are among the notable names committed to playing in the Spring League. Hardy and Browner were both out of the NFL in 2016, while Winslow hasn’t been on an active roster since 2013.
“For the younger guys, it’s definitely a developmental platform. But for some of the older guys, it’s a last chance to get seen,” Brian Woods, the Spring League’s founder and CEO, told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s a showcase. The NFL is aware of these guys. They’re still intrigued.”
Practices begin April 5 at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, and six games will be held April 15-26.
The inclusion of Hardy, who missed most of the 2014 season while on the commissioner’s exempt list because of an alleged domestic violence incident, will certainly raise the profile of the Spring League in its inaugural year.
Woods said Hardy, who served a four-game suspension in 2015 while with the Cowboys, applied to participate after learning about the league from his agent, Drew Rosenhaus. Hardy has 40 career sacks (including six in 2015) but has been a pariah because of his off-field issues as well as several flare-ups, including an on-field physical confrontation with Cowboys special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia.
“We realize some of these kids have had off-the-field trouble, but in no certain terms are we the moral police. We thought, hey look let’s give him a second maybe third chance if you will, and let’s let the NFL clubs decide what they want to do,” Woods said. “We felt like, if we at least gave him the opportunity, I think some NFL clubs might look at him and see if he learned from his mistakes and is trying to better himself as a human being and is willing to take place in something like the spring league just to show that he wants to get back to the NFL. Ultimately we’re going to leave it up to them to make the decision on whether he can return to the NFL.”
Initially, organizers intended to have a soft age limit of 26 years old. Browner is 32, Winslow is 33 and Hardy is 28. Other older participants include 30-year-old wide receiver David Nelson, who played for the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, and 28-year-old running back Ben Tate, who played for the Houston Texans, Cleveland Browns, Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers.
They’ll be participating alongside a host of other NFL hopefuls, all of whom have had at least a brief taste of the league in minicamps, training camps, on a practice squad or short stints on an active roster. Those are the type of players the league was created to help, Woods said.
“Our short term goal is to get a good turnout with NFL representation and put a good product on the field in year one. Hopefully get some of these players signed back to NFL clubs, or CFL, exposure they need to move back to the NFL,” Woods said.
The league will hold NFL-style practices and each team will play three games. The NFL and NFL Players Association are not affiliated with the Spring League but have made coaches, front offices and agents aware of it. The Spring League also will provide practice and game film for NFL teams to review. The coaching staff includes former Bills defensive backs coach Donnie Henderson and quarterbacks coach Terry Shea, who previously worked for five NFL teams, as well as Steve Fairchild, a longtime NFL and college offensive coach.
Players not under contract from any pro league or eligible for the 2017 draft are eligible to participate, and each had to pay a $350 application fee. The league currently has a roster of more than 100 players, none of whom will be paid to participate. That’s one cost-saving move that could make this league financially sustainable in ways that previous developmental were not. Another is the league’s centralized location at the Greenbrier, which eliminates a travel budget.
“It was apparent to me that having a league that could co-exist and have symbiotic relationship with the NFL was needed,” Woods said. “There is a need for that. And this condensed format is attractive to players. Its 20 days, get the exposure they need. What better time than just before the draft? That’s where these players are going to get the opportunity. I think people look at the business model and people say, ‘Oh this makes a lot more sense.’ ”
Follow Lindsay H. Jones on Twitter @bylindsayhjones.
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