MORGANTOWN — In two weeks the Buffalo Bills will open their preseason camp, and thus will begin one of the most intriguing stories of this or any season surrounding a free agent signing – West Virginia’s surprisingly undrafted wide receiver David Sills V.
Sills may not have had the numbers the NFL looks for in receivers, but he was chock full of all the intangibles that can take an average player and make him great.
You’ve seen it before in every sport. You’ve seen Tom Brady grow and Pete Rose do the same.
Sills has such things as intelligence, determination, understanding, being a good teammate, and the indefinable ability to take the football into the end zone and that can take you from the sandlots to the Hall of Fame.
It is difficult to imagine he wasn’t drafted, considering his upside as a receiver after having spent the first 20 years of his life as a quarterback.
How good did he become? College Football Reference keeps stats back to 1956 and only 14 Power 5 wide receivers have caught more career TDs than Sills, even though he played only two full years at the position.
And among the final two years played by Power 5 receivers, only three players caught move TD passes than the 33 Sills caught — Michael Crabtree of Texas Tech (41), Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State (38) and West Virginia’s Stedman Bailey (37).
Sills’ story, of course, has been rehashed ad infinitum. He was offered a scholarship to Southern California as a 13-year-old quarterback, recruited to WVU and moved to wide receiver. He took a year off to try to prove himself as a junior college quarterback and then went back to WVU to pick up his receiving position.
“It was definitely a strange path, but my foot is in the door, so I just have to keep the door open now or shut it behind me,” he said after going undrafted and signed by Buffalo.
You know this isn’t a matter of just signing a body to run drills, not by the uniform number Buffalo issued Sills — No. 1.
That’s a player’s number. And Buffalo thinks he’s a player.
The truth was, their original interest was in quarterback Will Grier when they started scouting WVU.
“Two years ago there was some talk when we were in the quarterback market that Will Grier might come out,” said Brandon Beane, Bills’ general manager. “So I went to watch West Virginia play twice. I was watching Grier, but in both of those games Sills made a lot of big plays in that game.
“This past year I saw him twice because I was watching him and Gary Jennings and a couple of other guys. He continued to make a lot of plays downfield, contested balls. He plays outside, has height and length, and you just saw production from him. He’s a smart kid and a savvy route runner.”
He’s a “smart kid” with the distinct advantage of having played the quarterback position.
“The biggest thing was just being on the same page as the quarterback and knowing what the quarterback was seeing on a play-by-play basis,” Sills said. “It was knowing if I need to give my QB more room on the sideline for a ‘go ball.’ Just being on the same page as the quarterback has contributed to a lot of my success in college.”
Sean McDermott, the Bills’ coach, understood what Sills was talking about.
“We talk about valuing smarts and intelligent football players, and having that quarterback background is an important piece of that,” McDermott said. “It doesn’t always mean that a player is football smart, but that quarterback piece in one’s background is somewhat unique.
“The more players you can add like that to the team, it adds to the overall intelligence of your football team. And I love the fact that he seemed to approach his college career every day moving forward with a little bit of a chip on his shoulder.”
The oddest part of the whole thing was WVU’s wide receiver coach at the time, Tyrone Carrier, told the Buffalo News he was probably more upset than Sills when he was passed over in the draft.
“I was actually really upset about it,” Carrier said recently. “I texted him and was like, ‘Let’s not talk for at least two days.’ It took about three days to get me on a phone. It was probably more tough on me than it was on him, because he hasn’t learned to play the position from anybody but me. I kind of hung my hat on that kid, and his success.”
Carrier, who went to Houston, his alma mater, with Dana Holgorsen, believes in Sills.
“I think he can play as long as he wants to play at the next level,” Carrier said. “He’s a technician, probably one of the smartest kids I’ve ever been around, one of the most hardworking kids, too. I mean, I can rave about him all day. I really feel like Buffalo has got the steal of the NFL draft. It’s out of this world that he didn’t get drafted. I don’t understand. But congratulations to Buffalo.
“He went through his bumps learning to play receiver. I want to say what made him so good is just that work ethic, that drive to be great. Most kids who come out, that get an offer that young, usually are brats. This kid, it was so shocking. He was nothing like that. He’s just a hard worker.”
And, believe it or not, there’s still a lot of room for that in the National Football League.