PITTSBURGH (AP) — Jaylen Samuels smiled at the question. It’s not the first time he’s been asked where exactly he fits on the football field.
The answer during Samuels’ time at North Carolina State depended on when you asked him.
Tight end? Fullback? Tailback? Wide receiver? Safety? At some point, the Pittsburgh Steelers rookie played them all for the Wolfpack.
He doesn’t see that being an issue in the NFL. At least not in Pittsburgh anyway. The Steelers made it clear when they called him on the final day of the draft last month and told him they were taking him in the fifth round.
Samuels is a running back. And only a running back. For now anyway. Yet even as he explains his comfort level in a room that’s currently missing Le’Veon Bell — who is skipping organized team activities while waiting to sign his one-year franchise tender — Samuels also tips his hand. He might not be done moving around the field just yet.
“I’m also in the slot, playing a little bit of that position, being able to run some routes, catch some balls in the slot, outside, wherever they want me,” Samuels said on Wednesday.
Sounds an awful lot like what the Steelers ask Bell to do. Of course, Bell is a three-time Pro Bowler, a two-time All-Pro and one of the most dynamic players in the NFL. Samuels is none of those things. He’s just a 21-year-old trying to find his way and hardly the only one in a backfield that is wide open behind Bell.
Former Pitt star James Conner showed flashes as a rookie last fall before a knee injury ended his season. Stevan Ridley arrived in December as a stopgap and did enough to earn a one-year deal for 2018. Fitzgerald Toussaint remains on the fringe of the picture too. Jarvion Franklin and James Summers are unknowns.
Bell’s long-term status is uncertain. He says he wants to be in Pittsburgh for the duration of his career. The Steelers do too. And yet if the two sides don’t reach an agreement on a new contract by the mid-July deadline, 2018 will almost certainly be Bell’s last year with the Steelers.
While Conner and Samuels are saying the right things — that the starting job is Bell’s whenever he shows up and for as long as he’s on the roster — both understand the opportunity the extra snaps created by Bell’s absence offers.
So does their quarterback.
“This is a big time for James with some of the injuries that he had last year and learning last year,” Ben Roethlisberger said. “I think this will be really good for him to get as many reps as possible.”
Though Conner remains a work in progress in the passing game, Samuels has wasted little time proving he knows what he’s doing when he lines up as a receiver. During a 2-point conversion drill on Wednesday, he hauled in a beautiful catch over a linebacker for a conversion, a grab that earned a roar from the sideline.
“It wasn’t nothing new for me,” Samuels said with a shrug.
Not by a long shot. Samuels set a school record by catching 202 passes at N.C. State, and his 47 touchdowns rank second all-time in program history. He believes he has a “knack” for getting over the goal line, and whenever the Wolfpack would get inside the opponent’s 20, offensive coordinator Eliah Drinkwitz has a special section on his play call sheet just for Samuels.
“It was just ‘JaySam’ plays,” Samuels said. “Just for whenever he wanted me to get the ball. If it was third down, fourth down, he’d just put me in the backfield and put me in the slot and try to get me the ball.”
Yet Samuels is just as comfortable lining up behind the quarterback too, a transition that began in earnest during his final season with the Wolfpack. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry in 2017 and ran for 12 touchdowns despite averaging just six rushes per game.
At 6-feet and 225 pounds, he considers himself a power guy with a dash of breakaway ability thrown in for good measure.
Still, NFL scouts didn’t quite know what to make of him. He worked out with the tight ends at the draft combine, doing just two drills with the running backs. He thinks that’s one of the reasons he was still there in the fifth round waiting for his name to be called. Getting passed over bothered him. More than a little.
“I felt disrespected going as late as I did,” Samuels said. “But that’s just going to be motivation for me.”
No matter where — or when — he lines up.
NOTES: The Steelers and third-round pick Mason Rudolph agreed to a four-year deal on Wednesday, leaving first-round pick Terrell Edmunds as the only selection yet to sign. … Roethlisberger was not on the field Wednesday.
More AP NFL: http://pro32.ap.org and https://twitter.com/AP_NFL