Christian Wade is currently surpassing all expectations in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills.
The former Wasps wing has caught the eye with a couple of explosive plays over the last two weeks of preseason, the first an excellent cutback run that went 65 yards for a touchdown, the second a short pass over the middle that Wade turned into a 45-yard reception.
To be doing that, despite having no American football experience prior to this year, is a phenomenal achievement. He might be going up against third- and fourth-string players, but those are third- and fourth-string players who have spent their whole lives playing the sport.
Beyond the highlight plays, the transition doesn’t seem beyond Wade, who has coped well with pre-snap adjustments being made by the quarterback, including shifting to the other side of the line of scrimmage on a screen pass and a fake on a quarterback run, in his most recent game against the Carolina Panthers. You only need to look at the swathes of video coming out of Buffalo to see that his new teammates have certainly taken to him, too.
Very few people would have expected such a quick uptake from the 28-year-old and it certainly bodes well for his future in the sport, although the brakes have to be pumped ever so slightly.
Wade may very well be embarrassing some of these defenders with his footwork, speed and power, something that has translated well from his time in rugby, but these aren’t, for the most part, the NFL defenders that he’d be facing in the regular season if he were to make the cut and be a part of the 53-man roster.
Panthers defensive end and fellow Brit Efe Obada may have had his tongue in his cheek when he told Wade prior to the game that “if I was the [defensive] end, I would’ve closed”, but there is plenty of truth to it. In the regular season, with the first- and second-string players on the field, the game will be played at a higher tempo and the opponents that Wade would face would be bigger and faster.
? I would've stopped you
— NFL UK (@NFLUK) August 16, 2019
You can only play the opposition that’s in front of you and Wade has so far excelled doing that, although the prospective jump in level of competition is certainly worth factoring in.
Then you have to consider the complexity of the playbook that Wade needs to learn, and not just learn but become so comfortable with that his teammates can have complete faith in him that he will know all the intricacies of it, the adjustments that can be made and then has the ability to go out and execute the play. The early signs are promising, but that’s a gargantuan task for a rookie who’s been playing football throughout high school and college, let alone someone transitioning from an entirely different sport.
The two big plays that Wade has so far made were directly attributable to his footwork, physical skill and eye for space. That will take you a long way in the NFL, although opportunities like that won’t show up quite so regularly in the NFL regular season.
— Buffalo Bills (@BuffaloBills) August 17, 2019
As a result of those plays, however, expectations have been raised among everyone watching Wade’s journey and the hope now is to see him replicating that in the final 53-man roster, something which few suggested a couple of weeks ago. That is an awful burden to put on Wade’s shoulders.
Firstly, Wade’s place on the International Player Pathway (IPP) guarantees him a practice squad spot in Buffalo. The Bills have a roster exemption for him that allows them to carry 11 practice squad members rather than the usual 10, but this is not something which also applies to the active roster of 53 that the franchise takes into the regular season.
To crack that 53 will be unbelievably difficult for the man from Slough. He may be dazzling among the backups right now, but when franchise quarterback Josh Allen is under center, can he pass protect like modern day NFL running backs have to? Can he stop a defensive end crashing into Allen’s blindside and, potentially, derailing the Bills’ season in the process?
The open field play has plenty of crossover from rugby, but Wade has no experience of a skill like blocking. These are things that don’t show up in preseason highlights, yet will be front and centre in the minds of head coach Sean McDermott and general manager Brandon Beane.
#Bills running back sensation Christian Wade said his teammates gave him grief about not following the right blocks despite his crazy 48-yard run!! He said he still feels like he’s living in a dream. #BillsMafia pic.twitter.com/RmPJ9hhyf4
— Matt Parrino (@MattParrino) August 17, 2019
Then you have to look at the rivals Wade has at running back for a spot in the team.
LeSean McCoy is number one on the depth chart, with the former Philadelphia Eagle having rushed for over 1,000 yards in six NFL seasons and is a six-time Pro Bowler. Then comes the veteran Frank Gore, who currently has the fourth most rushing yards in NFL history and only needs 522 more this season to go beyond the legendary Barry Sanders.
Third on the chart is Devin Singletary, who was a third-round pick for the Bills in this year’s NFL Draft. It would take something dramatic for Singletary not to make the roster, as it is almost unheard of for franchises to dispense with a player who they have invested that high of a pick in before their first season even begins.
Then comes TJ Yeldon, a former second-round pick out of Alabama, Senorise Perry and Marcus Murphy, all before you get to Wade. The Bills will only likely take three backs into the regular season, although if a fourth can help out on special teams as a return specialist or a gunner, then there could be scope for more.
When you break it down like that, Buffalo is both a great and terrible landing spot for Wade in the league. There is a wealth of experience for him to tap into and learn from, although there is also a congested group of running backs ahead of him, all vying for snaps. Whilst Wade’s story is delighting fans on both sides of the Atlantic, the Bills are invested in Singletary as the future at running back.
Furthermore, for all the Bills’ faults in recent seasons, being running back-needy is not one of them. The most likely outcome at this point is almost certainly that the Bills cut Wade when it comes time to trim their squad down to 53 on August 31st, and then sign him to their practice squad on September 1st, where they will then stash him for the season and continue to develop him, with the hopes he is ready to feature on the active roster in the 2020 NFL season.
There is, however, one other route into a 53-man roster for the Englishman.
If he is cut at the end of preseason, the other 31 teams in the NFL will have a chance to claim him on waivers. If they’re lacking for speed or an x factor talent in their group of running backs, they might view Wade as a risk worth taking, or a late injury may have them scrambling for some depth in the backfield.
In his first football game ever. On his first NFL touch.
— NFL (@NFL) August 9, 2019
Should one of the Bills’ running backs go down during the season and there are no free agents they like the look of, they could opt to promote a player from the practice squad to the active roster. Unfortunately for Wade, players on the IPP are ineligible from being activated during the season, so if he doesn’t make a roster at the end of preseason, he will have to wait until the 2020 season.
And waiting till the 2020 season shouldn’t be seen as some sort of disappointment.
Wade’s play so far has exceeded what all but the most optimistic – and possibly one-eyed – of rugby fans thought would happen in his first NFL preseason. His speed and footwork have translated to his new sport and he seems to be coping well with all the technical learning, such as how to carry the football, and the verbiage of an NFL playbook.
In an extremely challenging transition, Wade has delighted NFL and rugby fans alike, as well as represented his former sport particularly well on a very different stage.
His journey is an enormously exciting one, although expectations need to be tempered. Wade was walking and now he’s jogging, let’s not be too quick to demand he start sprinting.
Watch: The Rugby Pod react to the England Rugby World Cup squad.
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