x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

First round picks suggest global draft in NFL is slowly taking shape

Players such as Ghana's Ansah got picked in the first round - a sign of the changing times.

The Ghanian Ezekiel Ansah, centre, who began playing for Brigham Young University three years ago, stands alongside NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Detroit Lions great Barry Sanders. Adam Hunger / Reuters
The Ghanian Ezekiel Ansah, centre, who began playing for Brigham Young University three years ago, stands alongside NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and Detroit Lions great Barry Sanders. Adam Hunger / Reuters

The global spread of American football has been a slow process. A sprinkling of foreign-born players have joined the National Football League, but it is a game which relies almost entirely on home-bred players.

That changed, a bit, on the first day of the annual NFL draft, on Thursday, when three players from outside the US were selected among the 32 first-round picks of college football players.

Ghana's Ezekiel Ansah, who began playing the sport only three years ago, was selected as the fifth overall pick by the Detroit Lions.

Star Lotulelei, who was born in the Polynesian kingdom of Tonga, was selected as the 14th overall pick by the Carolina Panthers, two places above the only quarterback picked in the first round, Florida's EJ Manuel, taken by Buffalo.

Then, Germany's Bjorn Werner was chosen as the 24th pick, by the Indianapolis Colts, providing a rare international trio in the ultimate version of playground pick-a-team.

A handful of players from countries as widely separated as Australia, England, Estonia and Jamaica could be selected in the latter rounds but it was the unusually high number of first-round picks that was startling.

Few players who had made it to the NFL have taken a road as unlikely as Ansah, who had never seen a game of American football until he moved to the US from Ghana in 2008 on an academic scholarship.

After failing to make the basketball team at Brigham Young University, the very large and very quick Ansah decide to try his luck at American football and proved a natural as a defensive end.

"I can't be more humble that I am today," Ansah said. "I never envisioned myself five years ago being here."

Lotulelei and Werner also took unconventional paths to the ultra-professional world of the NFL.

Lotulelei, a defensive tackle, moved from Tonga when he was nine years old after his father, a Mormon teacher, accepted a position in Utah.

Like many of his compatriots who grow up playing the bruising rugby codes of union and league, he proved a perfect fit for the physical demands of American football.

Werner was raised to play the game Americans know as soccer, but got a taste of American football with a team in Germany before he won a scholarship at Florida State as a defensive end.

The first round also was notable for the number of linemen selected, nine on offence and nine more on defence.

The first two picks were linemen, including Luke Joeckel, who said: "It's always nice when the offensive line gets some respect. We usually get the crummy meeting room, the crummy chairs in our meeting room.

"A lot of teams are realising how important the position is. The guys, they look pretty scoring the touchdowns, but they get space to score those touchdowns from us."

For the first time since 1963, no running backs were chosen in the first round. The draft continued yesterday and concludes today.