Is Spring League an NFL springboard? It's at least a shot

Quarterback David Ash is playing in The Spring League, an independent and instructional league for professional football players. Rob Tringali for ESPN

David Ash stepped away from football in 2014, his career as the University of Texas quarterback cut short by concussions. Then, a wild thing happened. Three years later, he jumped in a car, drove from Texas to West Virginia and joined an upstart developmental league that helped deliver him to the Carolina Panthers' rookie minicamp this weekend.

Ash is among the success stories of The Spring League, an independent operation that concluded its inaugural season last week amid measured interest from established pro leagues. Scouts visited from 10 NFL teams and two Canadian Football League teams, according to CEO Brian Woods. Another 20 teams requested practice and game video.

The league was stocked with players who were at least two and as many as 10 years removed from college, prompting a mixed response from scouts and agents I surveyed. But the NFL is so starved for developmental services -- especially for quarterbacks -- that a majority of teams at least checked in during their busy pre-draft season. More than a dozen of The Spring League's players have been invited to NFL minicamps in the coming weeks.

"We were pleased with the NFL turnout for sure," Woods said. "It was overwhelming and we were happy to have it. I was talking as it wrapped up with some of our coaches, and we feel like this league is in position to help quarterbacks as much as anything, and we all know that's an ongoing priority for the NFL."

Woods took 105 players, split into four teams, to The Greenbrier resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. Ash was one of four quarterbacks on a list that also included NFL veterans Ricky Stanzi and McLeod Bethel-Thompson, along with former Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason. The players, who had a median age of about 25, met and practiced for about six hours each weekday and then played games on three weekends in April.

Longtime quarterback whisperer Terry Shea was among four coaches with significant NFL experience. Also on site to coach were Steve Fairchild (running backs), Donnie Henderson (defense) and Art Valero (offensive line).

The structure met with approval among a scouting community that will be vital to The Spring League's future. Whether it was receiving fresh information on nearly forgotten players such as Ash, or benefiting from a conditioned arm in Bethel-Thompson -- who will participate in the New York Jets' minicamp -- the scouts saw potential in the concept.

The talent level, on the other hand, probably fell short of what NFL teams envision for an established developmental league. Based on my conversations, arguably the best player there was running back Ben Tate -- who has been out of the league for two years and turns 29 in August.

Players such as Tate, pass-rusher Greg Hardy (age 28, and "not a f---ing psychopath," Hardy told Bleacher Report) and running back Anthony Dixon (age 29) don't fit a traditional mold if the intention is to provide supplemental depth to NFL rosters. Panthers director of pro scouting Mark Koncz, among the scouts who visited The Greenbrier, said he would "much rather see younger guys" and described the ideal developmental league player as someone who had been to one or two NFL training camps but was perhaps in the wrong system.

Woods acknowledged that a primary benefit of big names was attracting attention to the league, but he also said he envisioned a secondary purpose of providing an annual showcase for veterans.

"You look at a guy like Ben Tate, who performed exceptionally well," Woods said. "If I'm an NFL club, I look at him and say, 'This is a guy who still has some gas left in the tank.' You wouldn't be able to say that without looking at him in live action."

Indeed, some teams were intrigued with what they saw. The Panthers, in particular, took advantage of a relatively short drive and came away with six players -- including Ash -- who are participating this weekend in their rookie minicamp. Koncz and three other scouts rolled through during the course of the month.

"I think this league is on the right path and Brian's got the right idea," Koncz said. "It seems like there are lots of people that come in and have grand ideas of having lots of games in big stadiums and get television rights and all that. What Brian did was get guys in, play some games, have time for scouts to come in and evaluate and see what was there. A lot of these guys got looks that otherwise would not have."

Ash, 24, learned last year that what he thought were concussion symptoms were in fact caused by vestibular migraines, according to agent Jerry Marlatt. The condition has since been controlled by medicine. He signed with The Spring League less than a week before it kicked off, and the Panthers saw enough to extend a tryout that would otherwise have been unattainable through conventional means.

"David's situation is certainly unique," Marlatt said, "and I can only speak for us. But we're happy with the way things went there and the way it all transpired."

Said Koncz: "He was not a guy we had heard anything about for a while. His name had kind of disappeared. But he looked good, worked hard and we said, 'What the heck.' Quarterbacks are so hard to find. Why not bring him up to our minicamp?"

There is little doubt that The Spring League has room to grow. But along with its predecessor -- Woods also organized the Fall Experimental Football League from 2014 to 2015 -- it represents the closest incarnations we have seen to a project the NFL has discussed internally for most of this decade. It hit at a time when fans are starved for live football; a game streamed on Facebook was viewed 60,000 times, and a practice received 30,000 views. There was enough economic viability that Woods said it is "100 percent, absolutely positively" locked in for 2018.

To reinforce the initial spring footprint, the league will hold a late-July showcase event in California, either in Los Angeles or the Bay Area, to give teams a second look at players before they finalize training camp rosters.

"We've got a winner as it relates to structure and business model," Woods said, "and it's something we'll continue to build upon. From my standpoint, and what I heard from NFL teams as well, is that this is perfect for them. They can see guys in the offseason in shoulder pads and helmets, playing games with full tackling to the ground according to NFL rules. What better way to evaluate and grab guys who are active and in football shape right before that part of the offseason begins?"

Players, meanwhile, get all they can ever ask when seeking a job: live action in front of pro scouts who are looking to fill offseason rosters. Once signed, what they do with the opportunity is up to them. But in its first year, The Spring League did its part, catapulting more than a few of them to the next step. So it goes.