It was far from a guarantee that Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick out of North Carolina State who lacked a true position, would make the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 53-man roster, let alone be an actual contributor to the offense. He would prove to be a capable player, however, and take over the backup running back role by the end of the year, even working in a rotation.
Having been as much of a pass catcher than a runner in college, it’s no surprise that much of his contributions as a rookie had to do with participating in the receiving game. While he did not score a touchdown on the ground, he did add three through the air.
Samuels caught 201 passes over his four seasons in college, including 75 in his senior year. As a rookie, he caught 26 passes, picking up 199 yards for his efforts at 7.7 yards per reception. Three of them ended in the end zone, but none were as special as his first, which he recalled as the highlight of his first year in the league.
“My first touchdown, against Carolina” is the moment he recalled as the biggest moment of 2018 for him in a sit-down interview with Missi Matthews for the team’s website. “It was against my home team, on Thursday night, so I think that was probably the biggest moment, scoring my first touchdown and actually getting in the end zone again. That’s just something I’ve loved to do since I was in college, so scoring my first NFL touchdown, I think that was the biggest moment”.
The game against the Carolina Panthers was the first in which Samuels got significant work. It came on a short week on Thursday, so the Steelers gave James Conner more snaps off. His six-yard touchdown, in which he dove for the goal line early in the fourth quarter, was his third reception of the game.
Samuels has talked about his preference for getting the ball out in space, which obviously lends itself more toward the passing game than the running game. While he had nearly 200 carries in college (fewer than receptions, still), many of those carries were not of the traditional ‘running back’ variety, more designed to get him into space.
That has been an adjustment for him this year, and he has talked about the process, learning how to read his blockers and showing patience behind the line of scrimmage. We saw him adapt in real time from his first start to his second, in which he rushed for over 140 yards.
Samuels also scored touchdowns through the air against the Chargers and Saints, making him just the first Steelers rookie running back to catch three touchdown passes in team history. Rodney Carter also did it in 1987 in his first year, but he was not a rookie, as he was drafted in 1986.