Gabriel Davis isn’t worried about his spot on the Buffalo Bills’ depth chart. While most young wide receivers coming off of a seven touchdown rookie campaign would scoff at the notion of being the No. 4 option in his team’s passing game, Davis relishes the opportunity to learn from the stars ahead of him.
“Being able to learn from those big three guys,” Davis says was the biggest takeaway from his first NFL season. “The best thing that I did this year was I was able to learn from them, then take it to the offseason and put it together. Figuring out ways that I could bring all their ideas together, and their strengths and putting them into my game.”
Drafted in the fourth round, expectations were minimal for the Central Florida product. But the 6-foot-2, 216-pounder quickly carved out a role for himself in Buffalo’s potent, air-it-out passing attack. Davis saw the field for 872 snaps as a rookie, playing 305 in the slot, thanks to his relentless work ethic and strong study habits.
“Guys have their roles and I knew I had to be a backup to Bease, or Smoke last year, or Diggs,” Davis said Wednesday about how he found his way within the Bills’ offense. “I knew I had to be able to go in and execute what they did every day. So I wanted to know every position and every single play within that position.
“It was just a constant grind for me. Going home, studying the playbook, coming here and getting with [wide receivers coach] Chad (Hall), going over the plays before practice. Constantly doing flashcards and everything that would help me understand the plays so that when I go out there, it’s just being worried about what to do based on what the defense is giving me rather than worrying about my route.”
Those flashcards helped Davis visualize every route pattern from every receiver spot in the playbook. And he practiced and practiced until reciting the route responsibility on a specific play call became second nature.
“You put the play on the front – the word of the play – then you draw the picture on the back and try to say it before you look at it and be able to guess all the right stuff,” says Davis. “I’ve been doing it since I’ve been in the NFL. It’s helped me a lot to learn every single position and probably the best way to do it. Also taking a whiteboard and drawing a play up every single time.”
And that dedication paid off, as Davis finished the season with 35 receptions for 599 yards. His 17.1 yards-per-catch average ranked fourth among receivers with 60-plus targets. His seven touchdown grabs tied Justin Jefferson for second-most among rookies, trailing only Chase Claypool’s nine.
When the Bills released John Brown following the 2020 season, many believed that Davis would take over as the No. 2 receiver. Instead, the team signed Emmanuel Sanders to round out an already dynamic cast of proven, dynamic playmakers in Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley. Questions immediately arose regarding Davis’ role potentially being diminished due to the addition of Sanders, but after the first drive with Josh Allen at the helm during the preseason, those qualms have largely been put to rest.
Last year, the Bills trotted out four or more wide receivers on 115 plays, the second-most in the NFL behind the Arizona Cardinals. In Buffalo’s final preseason game against the Green Bay Packers, it didn’t appear that anything would be changing in 2021. Brian Daboll dialed up 17 consecutive pass plays to start the game, utilizing a lot of empty backfields with 10 and 11 personnel. Opportunities in the passing game will be far from scarce for Davis, who caught five passes for 75 yards and a score in the contest.
Allen had high praise for Davis following the game and lauded the second-year pro’s consistency on and off the field.
“It means a lot, especially from a high-caliber QB like Josh,” Davis said about Allen’s remarks. “You come here being the new guy and you try to show these guys that you can compete and perform at their level. I feel like I did that, and executed on every opportunity that was given to me. Being able to have his trust is everything.”
It isn’t just Allen’s trust that Davis has gained over the last year, though. Head coach Sean McDermott spoke to the media prior to Wednesday’s practice and pointed to his young receiver as somebody that embodies everything the franchise looks for when adding players to the roster.
“Gabe’s such a special person,” said McDermott. “He’s unique. Very mature for a young man, even last year when he first got here. You saw the production on the field, obviously. He does a lot of things for this offense. He does a lot of things for this football team. He was one of the first guys in the weight room this morning. For a young player to have that DNA and those character traits just says a lot about how he was raised by his mom and the family he grew up with.”
While Davis isn’t the No. 2 receiver many believed he’d be entering the offseason, he still will be an extremely impactful piece of Buffalo’s offense as they push for a Super Bowl this year. In a league with as many unexpected twists and turns as the NFL has, Davis will be ready every time his number is called.
“Anything can happen,” Davis said about his limited role. “It can come from a small role to a big role and everybody’s role is important. I just try to play mine the best I can. I’m just blessed to have those guys that I have to be able to watch and learn from to become a better receiver.”