Unlike Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association, the National Football League does not currently have its own minor league or developmental league that runs alongside the NFL regular season. NFL teams have practice squads, but those players do not regularly compete against other athletes in meaningful games. Practice squad players are, for the most part, fill-ins for starters who get hurt or who are released by a team for whatever reason. Some may remember when former Ultimate Fighting Championship performer and current World Wrestling Entertainment Superstar Brock Lesnar was offered a spot on the practice squad of the Minnesota Vikings years ago.
Practice squads are not, however, the only option for players who are unable to find a long-term home on a NFL team. The Canadian Football League could be an option for somebody who has been overlooked in a NFL Draft and who was unable to find a team once he entered free agency. While the quality of play in the CFL is undeniably inferior to that one will see on NFL Sundays, the CFL can still be a stepping stone to the NFL for an athlete who has the right frame of mind and who is able to prove to scouts that he can play in the top football competition on the planet.
Former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie may be the most famous success story as it pertains to CFL players making it in the big leagues. Flutie spent several seasons playing up north, and he ultimately received a chance to feature for the Buffalo Bills. While Flutie never won a Super Bowl for the Bills, he did become a popular member among local fans. You probably know, if you are a huge football fan, that Flutie made his name in Canada. There are a plethora of other players that you may not know played in the CFL before you were ever able to watch them wear NFL jerseys.
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15 Michael Sam
We can put Michael Sam in the “whatever happened to that guy” category? Sam, who was hoping to become the first openly gay man to play for a NFL team in a regular season game, failed to catch on with the St. Louis Rams and then with the Dallas Cowboys in 2014, and so he made his way to the CFL and to the Montreal Alouettes. Sam never seemed to be a good fit for Montreal, though, and he was only with the club for a few months in 2015 before he left the team and the CFL. It seems, heading into the spring of 2016, that Sam simply does not have the goods to make it in pro football.
14 Tyler Clutts
We love players such as Tyler Clutts because Clutts is a throwback who is able to get the job done on either side of the field when he is given a chance to do so. Clutts started his pro career with the Edmonton Eskimos of the CFL in 2008 and the man who made the transition to fullback on a full-time basis has since played for multiple NFL franchises. We last saw Clutts as a member of the Dallas Cowboys and it has been speculated in March 2016 that the Cowboys could choose to retain Clutts for at least another season once Dallas has completed other business.
13 Andre Rison
We had to double-check this one to make sure that we weren't reading a source incorrectly. Andre Rison, who was a Pro Bowl wide receiver during his NFL career, made a comeback to pro football in 2004. That was four years after he was last on a NFL roster (the Oakland Raiders). Rison, in his mid-30s at that point of his life, was not the player of old, but he was able to hang on the roster of the Toronto Argonauts for two seasons. You probably won't hear his name mentioned among all-time CFL greats, but it is nevertheless impressive that he was able to play for as long as he did.
12 Neiko Thorpe
The Oakland Raiders can thank hated rivals the Kansas City Chiefs for Neiko Thorpe. Kansas City had Thorpe's rights at the start of his NFL career back in 2012, but he was unable to remain with the Chiefs up through the start of the 2013 season. Thorpe headed to the CFL and to the Toronto Argonauts for his one and only campaign up north before he returned to the NFL and found a home with the Oakland Raiders. Thorpe had an up-and-down year as a member of the secondary of the Raiders in 2015 and it is currently unknown if Oakland will choose to retain his services for the 2016 season.
11 Jerrell Freeman
Jerrell Freeman first received a look from the Tennessee Titans in 2008. The Titans did not ink Freeman to a deal before the start of the season, though, and so the linebacker took his talents to the CFL and to the Saskatchewan Roughriders. Freeman's seasons up north resulted in the Indianapolis Colts giving him a call before the 2012 campaign began. The Colts would become the only NFL team that Freeman knew as an active player for the next four seasons, but that stopped being the case in March of 2016 when Freeman agreed to terms with the Chicago Bears.
10 Mike Vanderjagt
Diehard NFL fans probably envision Mike Vanderjagt wearing the colors of the Indianapolis Colts whenever they think of the kicker. Before Vanderjagt was routinely booting field goals while playing games in Indianapolis, he was completing kicks for CFL teams such as the Toronto Argonauts. In a story that disproves the theory that one cannot go home again, Vanderjagt finished his pro playing days as a member of the Argonauts. All those years later, we cannot help but wonder if Peyton Manning feels bad for referring to Vanderjagt as “our idiot kicker” during that one infamous interview. Some out there probably remember Vanderjagt largely because of that moment and not because he was, when he retired, the most accurate kicker in history.
9 Cordarro Law
It is the portion of the piece where we get to back-to-back players who have ties to the San Diego Chargers. Cordarro Law could not make the final roster of the Seattle Seahawks in 2012, so he gave it a shot in the CFL with the Calgary Stampeders. Law was given a chance to compete for a roster spot by the Chargers in 2014 and he played for the club that season and in 2015. Law is, as of the posting of this piece, a free agent, but the linebacker has a history of earning his place with a pro club before a season officially begins.
8 Dontrelle Inman
Dontrelle Inman was not always reeling in passes thrown by San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. Inman first found a home with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL in 2012. San Diego acquired Inman in 2014, and the wide receiver was needed during the 2015 campaign when the Chargers lost multiple offensive weapons to injuries. Fans of the Cleveland Browns may remember Inman speeding down the right sideline for a gain of 68 yards during a game that occurred last fall. Here is hoping that Inman has even better highlights ahead of him while in the NFL.
7 Joe Horn
Those who are currently in the CFL and feeling a bit lost as it pertains to their NFL careers need only look at Joe Horn for hope. Horn played for the Memphis Mad Dogs of the CFL (weird, we know) in 1995 before he was acquired by the Kansas City Chiefs. His Memphis days may not be remembered by many, but you probably know Horn as the man who became arguably the greatest wide receiver in the history of the New Orleans Saints. Horn, a New Orleans fan favorite, also served as a community leader following the tragic events of Hurricane Katrina.
6 Andrew Hawkins
Andrew Hawkins, a speedy yet undersized wide receiver, was not given a real chance to perform by the Cleveland Browns in 2008. He thus signed with the Montreal Alouettes of the CFL in December of that same year. Hawkins returned to the NFL, this time for good, in the summer of 2011 when he signed for the Cincinnati Bengals. The WR then made his way back to Cleveland and to the Browns during the 2014 offseason. Hawkins is now one of several veterans wondering just what it is that the Browns are attempting to accomplish in the spring of 2016 as the club is apparently in full rebuild-mode. Go for the high ground, Mr. Hawkins.
5 Brandon Browner
Brandon Browner has had one extraordinary pro career. The cornerback became an afterthought while he was part of the Denver Broncos and Browner found that he had to go to the CFL and the Calgary Stampeders if he wanted to continue playing. Browner spent several seasons in the CFL until he received a call from the Seattle Seahawks, where he won a Super Bowl. Able to cash in via free agency in March 2014, Browner put pen to paper on a deal with the New England Patriots. It was with New England where Browner won the Super Bowl for a second time. Maybe Browner is a good luck charm for franchises... although that wasn't the case last year in New Orleans.
4 Ricky Williams
We are a little ashamed to admit that we forgot that Ricky Williams spent the 2006 season playing for the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL. Williams, you may remember, was banned from the NFL for 2006 after he had violated the league's substance abuse policy on multiple occasions. While we do not want to get political in an article about sports, we hope that everyone can agree that pro athletes being suspended because they (allegedly) enjoy using marijuana on off days and during the offseason is ridiculous. Thanks for keeping Ricky Williams away from football for as long as he was gone, NFL.
3 Jon Ryan
Yes, those of you who are cynical about the matters, punters are people and football players, too! Jon Ryan is a Canadian-born punter who first became a pro in the CFL for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. As much as Ryan may have liked featuring for Winnipeg, we are guessing that he prefers being in the NFL and on the roster of the Seattle Seahawks. Ryan has been fortunate enough to be on a Seattle squad that won a Super Bowl and that nearly repeated as back-to-back world champions. We may once again see Ryan punting in a Super Bowl, perhaps as quickly as 2017.
2 Joe Theismann
Well before he became known as the starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins and later as a commentator on the ESPN version of Sunday Night Football, Joe Theismann received a shot to play in the CFL with the Toronto Argonauts. Theismann drew attention from the Redskins and Washington acquired the man who would eventually line up under center for the club until he suffered that nasty broken leg at the hands of New York Giants legend Lawrence Taylor in 1985. Theismann's CFL career is now but a memory for those of us who only ever saw him play in the NFL.
1 Cameron Wake
It's not like the New York Giants to miss out on a pass-rusher. That is what happened back in 2005 when the Giants passed on Cameron Wake after having Wake's rights. Wake was not deterred, however, and he spent two seasons up north in the CFL with the BC Lions before the Miami Dolphins came calling. The Dolphins made a wise choice in signing Wake, as Wake has been named to four Pro Bowl squads since signing for Miami. One can only imagine what might have been had the Giants held onto Wake. Perhaps Wake would have been part of those two New York teams that won Super Bowl championships.
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