Earlier this month, the Green Bay Packers were assigned Nigeria’s Kenneth Odumegwu via the NFL’s International Player Pathway (IPP) program, which scouts a pool of global prospects for NFL squads. In the offseason, IPP players do not count against a team’s 90-man roster. During the regular season, IPP players can be retained as practice squad players without counting against a team’s 16-man count. Functionally, Odumegwu is freeroll on a developmental pass-rusher for the next three seasons, or as long as the Packers want to keep up the project.
But how does the IPP work? How did the NFL find Odumegwu and how did he end up becoming a Packer? To answer these questions, I had a conversation with Mark Dulgerian, who serves as an international scout for the league and assisted in the 2023 IPP process.
My first question was what building a watch list of players looks like for the league. Dulgerian stated “being really creative” is of utmost importance. The NFL searches in Europe, South America, Africa and the South Pacific for talent that can potentially convert to the sport of football. Working mostly off of referrals, at least in the early stages of a watch list, one of the program’s biggest success stories is Jordan Mailata, the starting left tackle for the Philadelphia Eagles.
Mailata was a former Australian rugby player who had outgrown the sport, leading to Mailata’s camp actually reaching out to the football league. After spending time with the IPP training camp in 2018, a March workout impressed the Eagles’ front office enough that the team took a chance on drafting Mailata in the seventh round — before ever playing a live snap of football.
While the draft choice of Mailata is out of the ordinary, the sport switch and position played is fairly common among IPP players. Make no mistake, there is an emphasis on line-of-scrimmage players in the IPP program. “There’s a million 6’0” receivers who run a 4.5 [second 40-yard dash],” said Dulgerian, who noted it’s a “tough sell” to pitch NFL coaches on developing skill position players who might have 15 fewer years of football experience compared to their similarly aged American counterparts. Instead, the IPP typically swings for the fences on prospects who project as quality athletes at the offensive line, defensive line and tight end positions, which are generally in higher demand than project receivers, defensive backs and running backs.
Most of these players, too, were referred to the league after playing other sports. “With the European leagues, there are a lot of people playing football, but they might not necessarily be NFL-caliber athletes. A lot of players are already discovered and are already playing in the U.S.,” stated Dulgerian. He’s not wrong. College recruiting has expanded overseas, leading to much of the teenage talent either coming to the States during their high school years or while playing at the college level.
A recent example of this is Emmanuel Okoye, who originally was a basketball player in Nigeria before attending NFL Africa Touchdown in Ghana, a camp held by former New York Giant Osi Umenyiora. This is the same camp where Odumegwu first appeared on the scene, too. After flashing in Ghana, Okoye was invited to enroll in the NFL Academy in London, where he was able to earn a scholarship to the University of Tennessee, where he’ll play next season.
Focusing on players who are NFL-aged, the IPP has to find alternative routes for filling out its player pool when the international recruiting climate has begun to pluck its talent away. That’s why so many IPP players either come from rugby or basketball backgrounds, as the league is referred “too big” rugby players (like the 6’8”, 365-pound Mailata) or “too small” basketball players (like the 6’5”, 260-pound Odumegwu.)
Odumegwu, like Okoye, was originally a basketball prospect who was referred to Umenyiora as a player that the league might have an interest in. Umenyiora first exposed Odumegwu to football at a camp in December of 2021, when Odumegwu stood out with his 6’5” frame, 86” wingspan and 36” arms. From there, Odumegwu was invited to London for the NFL International Combine, which is something like the semi-final round for IPP prospects before coming to the States.
At the international combine, the league’s staff is looking for size and explosion. “It’s very traits based,” said Dulgerian, “You really have to overlook a lot of the technical stuff because it’s their first time doing a lot of unnatural movements.” Dulgerian would also note that the prospects do perform some football drills, but more as an introduction to the athletes so that they know what to expect moving forward.
If a player advances from the international combine, like Odumegwu did, he will spend north of two months at IMG Academy in Florida— a prep powerhouse known for pulling in nationwide and global talent. There, IPP prospects get their first experience with a strength and conditioning program. “Once you give them the diet and the S&C coaches, you just see the genetics take over,” said Dulgerian about the 10-week program, “The transformation is so, so quick.” Not only are prospects reshaping their bodies over this time, but they’re also given a crash course on the sport, ranging from terminology that they’ll see in playbooks to the rules that they must execute within.
The final test is a pro day, which is filmed and sent to NFL programs. Each season, a specific amount of teams are eligible for IPP exemptions. This year, it was the turn for the NFC North and the AFC West, meaning that 8 of the 13 IPP’s finalists would be allocated to NFL offseason rosters.
How do players get selected to teams? It’s not exactly a draft, according to Dulgerian, but a “collaboration” between franchises, the league and consultants who collectively decide who goes where. These consultants, including former general managers, also help decide which players advance past the international combine stage. “It’s definitely not random,” stated Dulgerian.
From there, IPP players are just another player in an NFL camp, outside of their roster exemption. The goal is to integrate these players in a way that makes a difference on the field for clubs within three seasons — which is when their roster exemptions expire. A player can get called up immediately, like German fullback Jakob Johnson was in 2019, or they might develop for a few seasons on the practice squad before getting that call, like German defensive tackle David Bada — who spent two years on the Washington Commanders’ practice squad before playing two games with Washington in 2022.
Ultimately, the IPP as a program has two goals: providing the NFL with additional talent and attempting to grow the international reach of the sport by creating international stars, as the NBA has done over the years. The IPP, along the NFL International Series and the league’s push to grow more flag football leagues across the world, are all based around that global growth plan. This generation’s Odumegwu is coming out of a basketball academy, but the next could be playing flag football, which will likely be an Olympic sport by 2028 — when the games are held in Los Angeles.