With his size, speed and quick feet, Christian Wade has been told his game profiles, in the best possible case, like that of Chicago Bears running back Tarik Cohen or Kansas City Chiefs wideout Tyreek Hill. Valentine Holmes, meanwhile, emulates his play off Christian McCaffrey, the Carolina Panthers' do-it-all running back with whom he shares some physical traits. If those comparisons prove to have any merit at all, Wade and Holmes would surely interest any NFL team, and the league is trying to create a path for such prospects to prove themselves one way or another.
The 27-year-old Wade is a British Rugby star who has conquered that sport at every level since he was a teenager. Holmes, 23, began playing in Australia's National Rugby League at the age of 17 and was a record-setting performer in the 2017 Rugby World Cup. They were two of seven participants in the NFL's International Pathway Pro Day, which was conducted on Monday at the AdventHealth Training Center, home of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Those seven NFL hopefuls have been training at the IMG Academy in Florida for the last three months and on Monday they showed off their skills to a group of 14 scouts from 12 different NFL teams, which obviously included the Buccaneers.
The International Pathway Program, which was instituted in 2017, is an effort by the NFL to find and help develop American football talent from all over the world. It has already produced a pair of NFL draft picks in Philadelphia Eagles tackle Jordan Mailata and Carolina Panthers defensive end Efe Obada, and Wade thinks that's just the beginning of the pipeline of talent the program will deliver.
"It's huge, man," said Wade, who like Holmes retired from his previous sport to pursue NFL dreams. "Obviously, to get into the NFL is ridiculously hard. It's usually through the American schooling system, college and then the draft. So for us to have an opportunity to get into the NFL, it's massive for us. There's definitely a lot of talented people out there in the world with some great attributes and I feel like the program has showed that over the last three or four years. Hopefully we can still keep picking up new talents and showing everyone that there are athletes out there who can compete with the best in the world."
Holmes and Wade played the fullback position in rugby and familiar with fielding kicks and running with the football. They project as running backs or slot receivers in the NFL, with kick and punt return possibilities as well. Monday's group of Pro Day participants also included three players with experience in the German Football League – defensive end David Bada, defensive tackle Moubarak Djeri and fullback Jakob Johnson – as well as defensive tackle Durval Neto and linebacker Maximo Sanchez who have played in American football leagues in Brazil and Mexico, respectively.
The ultimate dream for any of these participants would be to be drafted or signed as a free agent by an NFL team. Barring that, they will take part in the Pathway Program and potentially be placed on NFL practice squads this year. The Buccaneers have taken part in that program the past two seasons, getting an 11th practice squad spot to employ German linebacker Eric Nzeocha. Independent of the Pathway Program, the Buccaneers also recently signed Danish placekicker Phillip Andersen, who played in the German League.
"It's been awesome," said Holmes of the opportunity to work in the program and draw attention from NFL scouts. "This Pathway [program] has obviously been really good, really helpful for the NFL and for guys like us from different countries around the world. We've obviously seen how the group last year, with Jordan Mailata and guys like that, have been really good for their clubs. That's been an eye-opener for teams over here, and hopefully all seven of us get selected. It would be awesome to see all the boys that we've been training with for 12 weeks with a team but we'll soon see how it goes."
The Pro Day on Monday was held inside the Buccaneers' indoor facility and was run by IMG representatives with help from Tampa Bay's medical and equipment staffs. The four defensive players worked out for roughly an hour, followed by the same treatment for the three offensive prospects. In addition to route-running and other field drills, the players also took part in Scouting Combine-like drills such as the 40-yard dash and the vertical leap.
The 12 weeks the players have spent training at the IMG Academy helped them approach their Pro Day with a better understanding of what NFL scouts would be looking for. As much as Holmes and Wade might be built like small, compact running backs, they lack the years of experience actually playing the position.
"It's definitely become more natural," said Wade. "When we first started, especially for me, I wasn't really used to being told how far to run and how many steps to take and that sort of stuff. So, for me, it's definitely been a process, and as this program has gone along I've definitely got used to it. I think more it's become second nature. I've definitely enjoyed the whole experience and I'm looking forward to getting more work."
Holmes agreed that he had been working through a learning curve to figure out how his obvious athletic talents would translate to an unfamiliar game.
"With this program, it enables me to know when I can use my skills and how best to incorporate them into this sport," he said.
None of the Pro Day participants had yet to be contacted by NFL teams about potential roster spots, but the process is just beginning for them. They simply wanted to use Monday as an opportunity to catch the eyes of NFL talent evaluators.
"We're just the guys that train hard and try to put a good performance on and hopefully impress teams, and then we just wait, I guess," said Holmes. "I'm just here to do my best and put my best foot forward."