Ramon Foster had an early read on Mike Hilton around this time last year, according to Mike Prisuta, who in an article on the team’s website pointed out that he named the former undrafted free agent cornerback as a player that stood out during spring drills in 2017.
Hilton would go on to become the Pittsburgh Steelers’ starting slot cornerback, registering about a dozen run stops with two interceptions and four sacks, in general establishing himself as a legitimate competitor in the NFL.
One player how stood out to Foster this time around was rookie fifth-round draft pick Jaylen Samuels, who was drafted as a running back, but who is also expecting to get a lot of receiving work. The NC State product was a versatile player in college, but will probably be given more clear structure at the professional level.
“He’s made two or three combat catches in the end zone, back-shoulder fades and jump-balls where you’re like, ‘this kid’s got something,’ receiver stuff, which is huge”, he told reporters. “That gives him an opportunity. He’s just so stoic, too. He’ll catch the ball and just go back like it’s work as usual. That’s what you have to appreciate about a young guy like that”.
Also catching Foster’s eye was second-year running back James Conner, who was drafted in the third round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He got 32 carries during his rookie season, but suffered a torn MCL late in the year. He is now fully healed and looking very good, according to the veteran lineman.
Conner and Samuels are getting quite a bit of work this offseason in an opportunity granted to them by the absence of Le’Veon Bell, who has about a month left to sign a long-term contract with the Steelers before the deadline passes for him to do so.
Should that deadline pass without a deal being reached, Bell will be forced to play the season under the franchise tag for a second year in a row, and that also means he will not participate in training camp or the preseason, which would mean continued high-quality reps for the young running backs.
The Steelers know that they are on the verge of life without Bell. If a deal is not reached within the next few weeks, it is most likely that the All-Pro running back will be playing in a different uniform come 2019.
If that is the case, then they are getting a taste of what their future might look like with the work that Conner and Samuels are putting in, who very well could be two of the three running backs that make up a committee seeking to replace Bell’s production next season.
It’s easy for a running back to look good without pads on, of course, but you can’t fake receiving ability.