Earlier this week, British discus thrower Lawrence Okoye signed his contract with the 49ers, joining the team as an undrafted free agent. He will report for the rookie minicamp next week as he begins his attempt to become an NFL player.
As we've discussed before, Okoye has never played American football, and has a long road ahead of him. The good news is that Okoye recognizes the climb he faces, and appears willing to put in the extensive work needed to turn his potential into production.
Okoye has been doing some press from Atlanta, where he is training, and there are a couple of interesting interviews with Eric Branch and Cam Inman. Okoye is a guy who not only has to learn how to play defensive end, but he has to just learn some of the most basic things about football. He spoke about how he still had to learn how to properly put on pads, as his only opportunity was briefly during his visit with the Saints. In his interview with Cam Inman, he referenced "Joe Marino" when he meant Joe Montana. While that is not specific to his on-field performance, it does show just how raw he is when it comes to American football.
The odds would appear to be pretty low for him to make the 49ers 53-man roster. He has the raw athleticism to develop into a football player, and I would say he is smart enough to learn the game quickly (he was admitted to Oxford to study law and has deferred admission). However, it is going to take some time. He switched from rugby to discus and became an Olympian within two years, so this is not out of the realm of possibility. But there is a steep enough learning curve that the 49ers will likely need to figure out what to do with him his rookie year.
The two options for the 49ers are the 53-man roster and the practice squad. The practice squad rules allow for eight players that do not have an accrued season of NFL experience and free agent players who were on the active list for fewer than nine regular season games during their only accrued season(s). As an undrafted free agent, Okoye would have the necessary eligibility.
As a practice squad player, Okoye would be free to sign with another club, but that team would be required to keep him on their 53-man roster for a minimum of three weeks. Okoye would have to clear waivers at the end of training camp to be placed on the practice squad.
Some folks mentioned the "International Player" designation. That allows a team to designate a player whose citizenship and place of residence are outside the United States and its territories. Such a player is not allowed to sign with another club during that season as the "International Player".
That being said, the NFL has to "elect to allow" a team to use such a designation. The NFL informed me that the league is not using that designation. So, it leaves the 53-man roster and the practice squad as the two options.