Steelers Hybrid Jaylen Samuels Poised to Prove That RBs Really Are Replaceable

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterDecember 6, 2018

Pittsburgh Steelers running back Jaylen Samuels (38) plays in an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers, Sunday, Dec. 2, 2018, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Steelers rookie running back Jaylen Samuels was, as recently as February, officially a tight end.

Samuels was listed as a running back on his NFL.com predraft scouting report, but that's a retcon. He worked out at the scouting combine as a tight end. And while he got the chance to perform a few running back drills at the combine, running backs run their sprints and workouts on a Friday, tight ends on a Saturday, and Samuels was a Saturday guy. He competed in the underwear Olympics with Hayden Hurst and Mike Gesicki instead of Saquon Barkley and Nick Chubb.

Positional confusion followed Samuels throughout the draft process. North Carolina State listed him at tight end but gave him a few dozen carries per season. Some outlets even listed him as a fullback, which would make him about as marketable to the 2018 NFL as an eight-track tape player.

Everyone agreed that Samuels was versatile, which can be backhanded praise in a league full of coaches who love their cookie-cutters.

This Sunday, Samuels, the former tight end/H-back/fullback/halfback/whatever, will be the Steelers' primary running back when they face the Raiders. The fifth-round pick replaces James Conner, who sprained an ankle last Sunday night after a season of long relief of Le'Veon Bell, who is hiding from the franchise tag somewhere.

Samuels can do more than help the Steelers win some games down the stretch. He can also answer one of the NFL's most puzzling questions: Are running backs really replaceable?

Can a guy who never rushed more than 12 times in a college game step into a featured rule and duplicate the production of Conner, who already duplicated the production of the superstar Bell?

And if so, what does that mean for the future of scouting, team-building and the running back position?

Samuels has never been a traditional running back. Check his high school sizzle reel and you will find him split wide, in the slot, playing tight end and running sweeps from a Georgia Tech-style wingback position, in addition to playing some snaps in the backfield.

The N.C. State website says Samuels played wide receiver as a high school junior and running back/H-back as a senior. Recruiting services called him a fullback or just an "athlete."

In Dave Doeren's weird-'n'-wacky Wolfpack offense, Samuels and speedy Nyheim Hines lined up at every ball-handling position on the field; either or both could be in the backfield, the slot, at H-back or split wide on any particular play. But Hines (now with the Indianapolis Colts) or Matt Dayes (San Francisco 49er) always had primary ball-carrying duties. Samuels had more receptions than rushes in his sophomore and junior seasons and nearly the same amount (78 to 75) as a senior. He earned All-ACC third-team honors once—as a tight end.

Samuels worked out almost exclusively at running back at Senior Bowl week last year, and he looked darned good. His combine results (including a 4.54 second 40-yard dash) placed him among the top tight ends and would have ranked in the upper middle class of the running back prospects.

But a week of Senior Bowl practices, good workout results and four or five carries per week in the ACC do not a playoff-caliber NFL featured back make.

NFL.com's Lance Zierlein quoted an anonymous scout on Samuel's predraft report: "Here is the problem I'm having in writing my report: Does he have any special talent or is he just a player who is used in a variety of roles? Is he really, really good at any of his roles or just versatile?"

The Steelers drafted Samuels as a running back, but Samuels hasn't answered that scout's question yet. With Conner in the fold and Bell expected to walk through the door any minute in the spring/summer/early fall, Samuels shared backup reps with veterans Fitzgerald Toussaint and Stevan Ridley in camp while still lining up as an H-back in some formations, as if being groomed for yet another hybrid role.

Ridley, who rushed for 1,263 yards for the 2012 Patriots, has been the Steelers mop-up back for two seasons, playing mostly in blowouts and meaningless Week 17 games. He's expected to rotate with Samuels, as Mike Tomlin plans to use a committee-style backfield during Conner's absence. But Samuels' versatility is likely to get him on the field for the majority of offensive snaps.

So the Steelers, who replaced two-time All-Pro Bell with Conner with no perceptible drop-off in rushing production or offensive performance, will now replace Conner with a rookie hybrid and a guy who was knocking around the Jets and Falcons benches a few seasons ago.

If the offense still maintains, spending top dollar in free agency for someone like Bell or a top-five draft pick on a rusher like Barkley in the future will look even sillier than it does right now.

At North Carolina State, Jaylen Samuels was used as a passing target as much as he was in the Wolfpack's running game.
At North Carolina State, Jaylen Samuels was used as a passing target as much as he was in the Wolfpack's running game.Bob Leverone/Associated Press

It was one thing for Conner to step right in and replace Bell. Conner rushed for over 1,000 yards twice in college. He was a third-round pick who would likely have been drafted higher if not for his health issues. If Samuels hadn't attended the Senior Bowl as a running back last year, he'd be Durham Smythe or Tyler Conklin right now, lining up as the third tight end for a half-dozen snaps per game.

Instead, Samuels has the potential to become another Philip Lindsay (second in the NFL in rushing), Alvin Kamara (seventh in scrimmage yards), Justin Jackson (82 scrimmage yards and a touchdown in relief of Melvin Gordon last week) or Matt Breida (49ers top rusher; third in the NFL with 5.6 yards per carry). He could be just like any recent example of an undrafted rookie, small-school wonder, collegiate role-player or late-round afterthought who stepped into the starting lineup and outperformed a back with a huge name, reputation and/or salary.

Of course, Barkley, Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, Christian McCaffrey and other top picks are also playing at a high level this season, often demonstrating skills that no fifth-round hybrid tight end is likely to possess.

But the 2018 league-wide offensive explosion is largely built on the backs of young, affordable running backs who were lightly regarded coming out of college.

Samuels has the tools to become a bulkier version of Kamara or a Conner with less explosion but better hands. He caught a game-tying fourth-quarter touchdown pass against the Chargers last week and played well in relief of Conner against the Panthers and Browns in Weeks 10 and 8, respectrively. He's a little unconventional, but that works in today's NFL.

There's no right answer to the Great Replaceable Running Back debate. It's an ever-changing dilemma with multiple variables, from changes in the salary-cap structure to the evolving roles and skill sets of running backs at the college and pro levels. It's easier for us to talk theoretically about passing on Bell or Barkley and mining for fifth-rounders than it is for someone to actually do it with their job and team's future on the line. 

But if Samuels plays well down the stretch, "versatile" will cease to be a mild put-down, and smart teams will start looking way outside the box for featured running backs.

         

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier.  

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