June 12, 2014 at 2:39 pm

NFL could start developmental league, Lions president Tom Lewand says

Allen Park — Could there be a time, in the not-too-distant future, when the NFL has its own developmental league? Don’t bet against it.

“It hasn’t reached a level where it’s a serious topic right now; it’s not a front-burner issue for us,” Lions president Tom Lewand said Thursday. “But, could it happen? Yeah. Could you do it in a Grapefruit League-type, Cactus League-type way where you have six or eight teams in Arizona and six or eight teams in Florida — one or the other — and have a small league? Yeah, you could do that.”

The NFL abandoned its attempt at running a developmental league in 2007 when it shut down NFL Europe. Since then, coaches and personnel executives have watched as the league tightened restrictions on offseason training while the level of readiness for players coming into the league from college steadily declined.

Talk of revisiting the idea of a developmental league was sparked last month when Troy Vincent, NFL executive vice president of football operations, told a group of newspaper editors, “For all this football talent around, we have to create another platform for developing it.”

Vincent suggested both a developmental league and a training academy.

“It hasn’t developed to a level where we’ve talked about it at the league meetings,” Lewand said. “But I think there is always a desire to expand the process of bringing players to the league.”

As an example of that desire, Lewand pointed out the recent purchase and expansion of the regional combine system by the NFL.

“So, we’re always looking at ways to further develop the pipeline of talent into the league,” he said.

One of the killing points of the failed D-league attempts was money. NFL Europe reportedly lost $30 million. But, ESPN analyst and former NFL general manager Bill Polian told ESPN.com he believed an NFL D-league would turn a profit within three years. With the growing number of all-sports networks, Polian said, there is a greater need for live programming, which the D-league would provide.

"It's one of the best things that could happen to make players better sooner," NFL.com analyst Gil Brandt told ESPN’s Kevin Seifert. "You would look at it like a training program that so many large companies have today. These large, successful companies feel like they need to train their new employees. That's how we should look at it."

There are a lot of logistical and financial hurdles to work out, obviously. But if the NFL believes it can use the D-league to improve the talent level coming into the league and make money for itself and its network partners at the same time, it will find a way to make it happen.


Lions players work through a torrential downpour during minicamp on Thursday in Allen Park. If the NFL starts a developmental league, some of the Lions' project players could have another outlet through which to improve. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News