Jarryd Hayne is a professional football player.
First a rugby player, then an oddity, then a wonder, Hayne has reportedly made the San Francisco 49ers' initial 53-man active roster, according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area. As happens far too rarely, one of the most interesting, exciting stories of the NFL preseason gets a storybook ending.
There's no room on an NFL roster for a gimmick or a sideshow—especially not this roster.
After the 49ers suffered the most horrifying talent exodus in recent NFL history, they desperately need contributions from every player on the squad. Gone are the days of general manager Trent Baalke stashing raw and injured prospects on the bottom of the squad while the two-deeps wreaked havoc on the NFC. New head coach Jim Tomsula simply can't afford to keep a guy around if he isn't helping the team win.
Hayne earned his spot by doing just that in the preseason, over and over again.
The 27-year-old Australian announced his intention to leave the National Rugby League last October, possibly inspired by American rugby international Carlin Isles joining the Detroit Lions' practice squad some months before.
"It's going to be really hard for [Hayne]," Isles told ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein back in March. "It depends on his dedication. I think if he's dedicated, he could speed up the process. But for him, who never played football and to understand the defensive schemes, to understand the holes, the footwork, things like that, it's going to take some time."
Dedication is exactly what Hayne showed—not to mention jaw-dropping open-field ability and fast adaptation to the assignments and responsibilities of running in an NFL offense.
It started early: Tyler Emerick of the team's official site praised Hayne's first-ever padded practice, complimenting the obvious effort Hayne put into pass blocking and pad level. Days later, the 49ers posted video of Hayne excelling in goal-line work, blasting through three hard hits on his way to paydirt.
Once the 49ers reached the preseason, Hayne's speed, balance, power and return ability were impossible to miss:
The 53-yard run and 33-yard kickoff return against the Houston Texans were just a taste of what Hayne could do.
Against the Dallas Cowboys, Hayne led the 49ers in rushing with 54 yards on just eight carries, including another long run from scrimmage (34 yards). He also returned three punts—but he didn't just return them. On one, he caught the punt over his shoulder, on the fly, before turning around and rolling upfield for 27 yards:
In the third preseason game, the so-called dress rehearsal where starters typically play into the second half, Hayne's impact was limited to just one 18-yard catch and one 12-yard punt return, as well as two fruitless carries.
If this was a sneak preview of what to expect from Hayne in the regular season, 30 all-purpose yards on four touches is still an impressive, worthwhile contribution.
In the fourth preseason game, we got a look at what Hayne could someday be: one of the primary ways the 49ers advance the ball. With a big diet of 10 carries, he averaged a healthy 5.8 yards; he also caught two passes for 17 yards and returned three punts for an average of 14 yards each (and a long of 28).
Hayne likely sealed his place on the roster that night. When Hayne went on social media to rejoice in his making the team, fellow 49ers tailback Mike Davis laughed at him for acting like it was a surprise:
Of course, Hayne's spot on the roster isn't sealed at all.
Like any other undrafted free-agent rookie, Hayne is a member of an endangered species. Their typical career is nasty, brutish and short. Every week he stays on the roster will be another victory; every opportunity he doesn't maximize—backward run, muffed punt, lost fumble—could be his last on the 49ers roster.
|Preliminary 49ers Tailback Depth Chart|
|Carlos Hyde||2nd-round pick, 2014|
|Reggie Bush||Free agent, 2015|
|Mike Davis||4th-round pick, 2015|
|Jarryd Hayne||UDFA, 2015|
|Pro Football Reference|
Starter Carlos Hyde and change-of-pace back Reggie Bush have those two roles locked down. Hayne led all 49ers backs (and came in second in the NFL) with 175 rushing yards this preseason, but he can't be considered clearly ahead of Davis, a fourth-round rookie who piled up 113 yards of his own. If fifth-year veteran Kendall Hunter weren't going to injured reserve, Hayne's spot may not have been open at all.
Even in the return game, Hayne has a lot of bodies ahead of him. Bush can return both kicks and punts, 2014 fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington was last year's primary returner, and fellow free-agent rookie DeAndrew White made a splash on returns too—and he, like Hayne, posted to social media that he made the team.
If Hayne really wants to make it as a professional football player, this is the first step of the journey, not the last—and the real work has just begun.