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UK rugby star signs with Falcons thanks to new NFL rule

Former England rugby union standout Alex Gray, right, is trying his hand at the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons. (AP)

The Atlanta Falcons have gone abroad to sign the latest former rugby player turned NFL hopeful as part of a new international league exemption.

Alex Gray, a British rugby standout, will attempt to become a tight end with the Falcons and is the first-known rugby union professional to leave that sport to try American football. The 26-year-old had been playing for the Newcastle Falcons before joining the NFL’s Falcons, who lost in Super Bowl LI after going up 28-3.

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As part of the the NFL’s new International Player Pathway program, the NFC South randomly was selected to add additional practice squad exemptions — an 11th spot to the usual 10-man team — who will not be eligible to sign with the four teams’ active rosters next season. That means that Gray and three others with international roots (the New Orleans Saints’ Alex Jenkins, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Eric Nzeocha and the Carolina Panthers’ Efe Obada) can ply their trade this season in what essentially amounts to a redshirt year.

Here’s a summary of Gray’s career from chroniclelive.co.uk, although we admittedly don’t know too much about his skill level in rugby — or how quickly he can acclimate to American football:

Gray played nine times for Newcastle Falcons, also turning out for London Irish and Yorkshire Carnegie, as well as England at youth levels, captaining them the Under-16s and Under-18s to grand slams. He also starred for England Sevens and captain England in the Under-20 Grand Slam and Junior World Championship Final in 2011.

Gray will be a fascinating story to follow — and not just because he uses British spellings such as “honoured” and “organisation” that seem to oddly melt American hearts. Former international rugby star Jarryd Hayne was quite the story when he was trying to make the San Francisco 49ers, and he clearly had enough talent to stick in the NFL as something, even though he wisely chose to return to being a rugby star overseas again.

Additionally, former rugby standout Nate Ebner has become a favorite of both New England Patriots fans and head coach Bill Belichick and has carved out a nice role as a key special teamer for the Super Bowl champs two of the past three seasons.

Could Gray be the next in line? We shall see, but we likely won’t have much clue about his playing ability until 2018 if he chooses to stick it out over here.

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at edholm@yahoo-inc.com or follow him on Twitter!