With sport slowly returning and NFL teams preparing to return to team facilities, we are entering a crucial stage in Christian Wade’s attempts to transition from rugby to the NFL. The Wasps superstar is going through the International Player Pathway and spent last season on the Practice Squad of the Buffalo Bills, with the Pathway allowing the Bills a roster exemption to keep him in that spot all season.
Now entering his second season in the league, he is at a key point. He is 29 years old, which is already old for a Running Back, though he may have a couple of extra seasons in him due to not having years of contact at the position behind him, but he may soon find his pace – a key part to his game – starting to diminish in the near future. During last year’s preseason, he had some impressive plays – including a touchdown on his first touch of the ball – but there is a lot more to the running back position, such a pass protection that will take time to learn.
Has he had that time? A year on the Bills practice squad will have helped, but the pandemic has surely disrupted his off-field practice and he needs as much time as possible to not just familiarise himself with the position, but make its requirements second nature. What also isn’t going to help is the potential reduction in preseason games this year due to the pandemic, giving Wade less chances in-game to prove himself worthy of a space.
But who is he up against? NFL teams will generally carry 4 running backs on the final roster, 1 of whom will usually be a fullback. Looking at the current wider roster, that means 1 spot will go to either Patrick DiMarco or rookie Reggie Gilliam. So that leaves 3 spots. Devin Singletary looks set to top the depth chart, and I can’t see the team spending a third-round pick on Zack Moss if they don’t intend to use him a decent amount this season. As for the final spot, I can see the Bills going for a more experienced option in T.J. Yeldon as he will probably be seen as a less risky option coming off a disrupted offseason and preseason. Right now it looks like Wade’s best chance of making the roster would be on Special Teams as a Punt Returner, but that will also cut into his time practicing as a RB.
So if we assume that Wade finds himself missing out on the roster, what happens next? Well, thefirst step would be to go through waivers, where the other 31 franchises would have a chance to sign him. There is always the chance that a team will take a shot on him, but with the running back role becoming very much a by-committee approach, there are a lot of options out there and I can see teams looking for players with more experience of the game rather than taking a risk on Wade’s intangibles.
The good news for Wade is that clearing waivers would not be the end of things. Back in April, he was given a roster exemption for a second season, which would leave the Bills with 3 options after clearing waivers:
- They could cut him, but as we will see from the other options, there would be very little point to doing this
- They could assign him to the Practice Squad using the IPP exemption, meaning that Bills would have 11 players on their Practice Squad compared to the usual 10. He would not be able to be claimed off Practice Squad by another team, but would also not be able to be called up to the main roster at all during the season
- The could assign him to the Practice Squad without using the IPP exemption, meaning that he is just one of the normal 10 members of the Practice Squad, so could be called up to the main roster during the season, but would also be able to be claimed by another team during the season.
Now if Wade only just misses out on a roster spot, I can see the Bills taking a risk by assigning him as one of the 10 members of the Practice Squad so that they could call him up later in the season. More likely, though, I see them taking advantage of the roster exemption and having him as an 11ᵗʰ member of the Practice Squad for a second year. It stops other teams picking up a running back with great intangibles later in the season, while also meaning that they are not taking up a spot on their roster or Practice Squad for someone they don’t think is ready for the NFL.
And after 2 seasons on the Practice Squad, and being the wrong side of 30 by the time the 2021 season comes around, will that be the chance gone for a player who found himself underappreciated by the England coaches? Only time will tell…