Once was a novelty, a fun moment in the fourth quarter of the first preseason game.
Twice, though, is enough to ask – could Christian Wade really have a future with the Buffalo Bills?
The former rugby star has captured the imagination of fans and teammates with his remarkable runs in the team’s two preseason games. First came a 65-yard touchdown run against the Indianapolis Colts on the first carry of Wade’s NFL career.
He almost did it again Friday against Carolina, taking a short pass from Tyree Jackson and making at least four Panthers miss before finally being brought down 48 yards later, just 2 yards from the end zone. Two touches, 113 total yards from scrimmage.
“He's really exploded onto the scene,” receiver Zay Jones said. “I can't say that I really saw this coming. I didn't know quite how it was going to pan out. … Imagine if your first time playing football was with the best players in the world. The way that he's grasped this game and done well, it's nothing short of amazing.”
A refresher: Wade came to the Bills in April as part of the NFL’s International Player Pathway program. Instituted in 2017, the program aims to provide elite international athletes the opportunity to compete at the NFL level, improve their skills, and ultimately earn a spot on an NFL roster.
Wade’s first two games have led to some fans wondering whether he could actually do that this year. There has been some confusion, so let’s set the record straight. According to the Bills, here’s what can happen with Wade:
1. He can make the 53-man roster at the end of the preseason.
2. He can be put on waivers and claimed by another team and put on its 53-man roster.
3. He can clear waivers. At that point, Wade would then be a free agent, eligible to sign to any NFL team’s 10-man practice squad, including with the Bills. He would be eligible to be promoted to the 53-man roster, or signed to another team’s 53-man roster, if this were to happen.
4. The Bills also have the option of using an exempt, 11th spot on their practice squad for Wade. If the team and player take this option, Wade is locked into the commitment for a year. He would not be eligible to be promoted to the 53-man roster, and no other team could sign him away from the Bills’ practice squad.
“I always believed in my abilities to be able to run fast and beat people one-on-one,” Wade said Sunday as the team returned to practice at its Orchard Park headquarters. “That's what I was doing in rugby, and that's part of the reason why I had the confidence to be able to come over here.”
Keep in mind, this is a player who did not start playing football until January. On Sunday, Bills coach Sean McDermott reflected to the first time Wade was in the team’s meeting room, and how foreign the numbering system of how offensive plays are called was to him.
“He’s come a long way and I give a lot of credit to him and his teammates and (running backs) coach (Kelly) Skipper,” McDermott said. “He’s making this look easy. Not anybody can do this. There are people out there that think they can, in fairness to them. It’s been special to watch him and his growth. Those are the moments as a coach that you just love to hear about and see.”
Option No. 1 above remains unlikely. Wade is seventh on the Bills’ running back depth chart, after all. Given that he’s so new to football, option No. 2 is unlikely.
Where it gets interesting is with option Nos. 3 and 4. If Wade continues to impress, can he convince the Bills or another team he’s worth a regular spot on the 10-man practice squad? If so, Wade might prefer that avenue, because it would keep open the possibility of making a 53-man roster this season, an option that would disappear if he takes the exempt, 11th spot with the Bills.
“I guess I believed I could already do it, that's why I made the switch,” he said. “I played rugby at a top level for nearly 10 years, so there's a lot of experience I've had in terms of international sport and playing at a high level. I knew I could come over here and use that to help me try and excel over here.”
Wade, though, is the first to admit his NFL education is still in the elementary phase. His highlight runs have been the talk of social media, but the real development takes place on the practice field and in the meeting rooms.
“That's just what you see on the surface,” he said of making the highlight reel two weeks in a row. “There's so much stuff that goes on behind the scenes in learning the plays – really hard, struggling days where I'm trying to pick stuff up. I'm still way far away from the finished product, or being someone who is fully comfortable out on the field. I'm just trying to keep working every day.
“It's such a huge mountain to climb that I can't really look at it like, 'Oh, there's the top. That's where I'm trying to go.' I have to literally take baby steps and keep going. Scoring and making a couple of plays, for me, just shows that I'm going in the right direction. All the long nights and studying for hours and asking people questions and feeling uncomfortable in practice, all that stuff is worth it, because then this is what happens on the field.”