One of the most common things you hear after every draft is that grades can’t be finished until at least three years after a pick has been made. So after submitting my grades for every Steelers’ pick in this year’s class, I’m going back and revisiting picks from three years ago and beyond made by Pittsburgh. That continues today with the second of the team’s two fifth-round picks in 2018, tight end Jaylen Samuels out of North Carolina State.
I tweaked my exercise for grading this year’s draft to look at and give letter grades to past picks, based on five specific ways to view the pick (listed below), before taking all that analysis and combining it into a final letter grade. Those five viewpoints comprise much of what goes into the draft grades consumed by so many every year after the draft.
Steelers’ Career: What did the player contribute to the team that drafted him?
NFL Career: Did the player make the pick look better in hindsight after leaving Pittsburgh?
Pick Value: Did the player outperform his draft slot? Did he fail to live up to the pick used on him?
Positional Value: Was the player the best player remaining at his specific position in the draft?
Other Options: Did any players go during the next round that were better selections?
Overall Grade: A final mark to denote whether the selection was an overall positive one, or one better spent elsewhere.
Just like when grading a current year’s draft, each factor in a retrospective doesn’t apply evenly to every pick made. For example, a first round selection should have a longer and more impactful career, whereas a late-round pick only needs a few seasons in a limited role to live up to his draft slot.
Some factors are universal, though. Whether picked first overall or 259th, there will always be other options on the board to compare the player to, and steals and reaches can come from any place in the draft.
Round 5, Pick 28: Jaylen Samuels, TE, North Carolina State
STEELERS & NFL CAREER: B
Samuels had an interesting college career, playing primarily tight end for the Wolfpack, but also seeing carries out of the backfield all four of his seasons at North Carolina State. While listed as a tight end by the university, the Steelers immediately converted Samuels to a full-time running back upon drafting him in the fifth round in 2018.
Since, Samuels has had a role in the Steelers’ backfield all three of his seasons. He has played 14 games every season, seeing 56 and 66 carries his first two seasons and 26 and 47 receptions. He was actually second on the team in catches in 2019. In his career, Samuels has 459 rushing yards and 550 receiving yards, with five total touchdowns.
While one of the most versatile backs on the roster every season, Samuels’ role took a nosedive in 2020. He still played and was a factor in the team’s backfield. But his snap percentage went from 20 and 36 percent the first two years to just 11 last season. He received only nine carries and receptions, and got buried on the depth chart behind James Conner, Benny Snell and rookie Anthony McFarland Jr. It’s a major step back from the role Pittsburgh gave him in 2018 and 2019. Even if that was a sign of his phasing out of the team’s offense, Samuels still had a positive career for the team thus far.
PICK VALUE: A-
Picked in the late fifth round and immediately converted full-time from his primary college position to his secondary one, Samuels has exceeded the value of the pick the Steelers used on him. His numbers aren’t eye-catching and he won’t top any “steals” lists from the 2018 class. But Samuels’ versatility and skillset that he brought to the backfield all three seasons (even if his role shrunk in 2020) were valued additions to the backfield and made the team better.
To get multiple seasons out of a 165th overall pick as a backup running back and a leading receiver out of the backfield is a good use of the selection. Even if those two seasons were his only ones as a regular member of the team’s RB rotation, the Steelers did well here.
POSITIONAL VALUE: A-
If you want to grade Samuels strictly by the position he was drafted as from NC State, this is a home run. Only two tight ends went later than him in the draft — Jordan Thomas (Houston) and Ryan Izzo (New England). Samuels outperformed those two combined in receiving, and did so playing a different position.
I chose to compare Samuels to the rest of the class at running back, given that is the position Pittsburgh drafted him to play. The competition gets better there, but doesn’t overmatch Samuels. Justin Jackson (L.A. Chargers) is exciting and looked like he had a role in his backfield, but can’t stay healthy. Jordan Wilkins gets occasional looks every season in Indianapolis. Boston Scott has carved out a pass-catching role in Philadelphia after his drafting team, New Orleans, waived him.
Samuels may not have the rushing stats of those three, but he isn’t far back from the ones he trails. He leads that group in receiving, and has played as key a role in Pittsburgh’s backfield as the others have played for their teams. It’s hard to look at the rest of the backs taken and argue one of them was a better selection here.
OTHER OPTIONS: B+
It’s easier to argue in retrospect that some of the 32 names taken after Samuels were a better selection for Pittsburgh. Given this pick is only 17 selections after Marcus Allen, graded yesterday, there is some major overlap between this section for Allen and for Samuels.
Wyatt Teller, the chief miss on Allen’s pick, went one selection after Samuels. As mentioned yesterday, quality linemen this late are an evergreen positive selection later on Day 3, and Teller has exceeded that to become one of the best young guards in football. His going directly after Samuels is an extra little twist of the knife. Folorunso Fatukasi went in the early sixth and is now a quality man in the middle of the Jets’ D-Line. A lesser miss but still quality pick that went 32 picks after Allen and Samuels is receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling.
Examining the rest of the class that followed Samuels in the next 32 picks, two more names jump out. DeShon Elliott started at safety for Baltimore last year and had two forced fumbles and 80 tackles. And Russell Gage has carved out a role in a talented Atlanta receiving group, recording 72 receptions for 786 yards in 2020. Gage hurts more to miss on than Elliott, but both trail Teller by a mile as the best player to go shortly after Samuels. Overall, not a lot of players who rank above Samuels in a do-over.
OVERALL GRADE: B+
When all is said and done looking at this class, Samuels is one of the best picks out of it for the Steelers, in terms of value received in relation to the selection used. He was never the backfield leader and wouldn’t go tremendously high in a total re-draft of the class. But his contributions to the team’s offense and the versatility he provided were valuable in the two years he saw the field more than an occasional snap.
A continued investment of mid-round picks at the position (and this year’s first-round pick of Najee Harris) pushed Samuels out of that role, which is the correct decision given the upside those players have that Samuels doesn’t. There is a definite ceiling to Samuels’ game, and it stands to cost him a roster spot this season unless then team keeps more than three backs. But as a late fifth-round pick, he added a receiving element to the depth of the team’s backfield and made it at least three seasons of his rookie contract. The team could’ve done far worse 165th overall.