The NFL is the only one of the four major American sports leagues – NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL – that doesn't have a developmental league to pull players from. Baseball has the minor league. Basketball has the G League. The NHL has the AHL.
NFL rosters are restocked every year mostly by players coming directly from college. Some are ready to play right away. Some are not.
It's for that reason NFL talent evaluators plan to have a close eye on the newly formed Alliance of American Football. The AAF is a professional football league founded by Charlie Ebersol and former NFL executive Bill Polian. It is set to begin play in February 2019, one week following the NFL's Super Bowl.
"It's really interesting for us from a personnel standpoint and our scouting staff," Lions general manager Bob Quinn said of AAF. "There's actually a couple players that were on our practice squad, that are going to go down and play in that league, which they should – because those guys that we've added late in the year on the practice squad, they really missed a year of football.
"They came in for a couple weeks, practiced, did a good job for us, so we had some conversations with them about, 'Hey, do you want to come back and sign with us, or do you want to go play?' And those guys had a chance to go play in that league, which I think is great."
The AAF will give those players that have NFL potential, but maybe need more time to hone their skills in a live football environment, an opportunity for real development under NFL-seasoned coaching.
"We're going to scout that league," Quinn said. "I think their training camps are coming up here in a couple weeks, down in San Antonio, I believe. So, we're going to actually send some of our scouts down there. They're open for us to come down and evaluate. We'll get their film once they start playing their games in February and March, so we're going to scout them, yeah, for sure."
If the AAF can last – we've seen leagues like this come and go in the past due to funding issues or a lack of popularity – it could provide the NFL with a new system to develop players.
The league is starting with eight teams, and some of the coaches have extensive NFL and college experience, including Mike Martz (San Diego Fleet), Dennis Erickson (Salt Lake Stallions), Steve Spurrier (Orlando Apollos), Mike Singletary (Memphis Express) and Brad Childress (Atlanta Legends).
"I think it's a great opportunity for us just to get another look at players playing games," Lions head coach Matt Patricia said. "It's hard when you go through the course of the season and you're trying to build your roster and push for the future and you're looking at guys that maybe are on your practice squad or are on other practice squads but you never really get to see game tape of them this late in the year.
"This will be a great opportunity for us to get some game tape of those guys through the spring and then be able to evaluate as they end their season and then as we push towards our offseason."