Fifth-round draft picks are far from guaranteed a spot on the Opening Day roster and the chances of Jaylen Samuels achieving that dream with the Pittsburgh Steelers seemed slim when the team reported to camp just over a month ago. With Le’Veon Bell and James Conner firmly entrenched atop the depth chart, the former N.C. State product appeared to face stiff competition in his quest to be the No. 3 back on the roster.
While returning veterans Stevan Ridley and Fitzgerald Toussaint were once considered the favorites for this role, it’s no longer deemed a foregone conclusion that one of them will win the job after all. A surprisingly productive end by Ridley to the 2017 season seemed to suggest he’d have a leg up on the competition when training camp began. But the former New England Patriots running back hasn’t seen a carry in the preseason since gaining 14 yards on 10 attempts in Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Toussaint also missed out in Week 3 of the preseason after receiving six carries two weeks ago and seven against the Green Bay Packers. Although it hasn’t always been obvious to outsiders why the coaching staff appears to hold Toussaint in such high regard, he clearly has been doing something right to warrant a fourth training camp with the Steelers in 2018. It would also be fair to say that Toussaint hasn’t disappointed when given a chance to carry the ball this offseason. He even appears to have added a bit more speed to his game this year.
But when Toussaint lost the battle for an Opening Day roster spot in 2017 to relative newcomer Terrell Watson, the signs were perhaps ominous when he didn’t receive a snap at running back in the last two preseason games of that year. Watching Samuels receive all the carries after Conner left the field on Saturday cannot have been easy for Ridley and Toussaint, but the real key could be the division of labor against the Carolina Panthers.
Samuels already leads the team in carries (26) and is second in rushing yards (86) to Conner (100). His eight receptions are also tied for second behind Damoun Patterson (9) and, if not for a holding call against the Tennessee Titans, he’d also have an 18-yard touchdown reception to add to his current total of 50 yards receiving.
Should Samuels once again see the bulk of the carries on Thursday, in much the same way Watson did in the final game of the preseason last year, the writing could be on the wall for both of the veteran backs, assuming a strong performance by No. 38. Toussaint also could not have been thrilled to see the team acquire a return specialist in Ryan Switzer on Monday, a player who might erase some of his apparent value on special teams.
For James Summers and Jarvion Franklin, the first three games of the preseason have been something of a bust. Summers has seen just one carry so far, which is still one more than Franklin. Both seem unlikely to play on Thursday and their best chance of remaining with the team is as members of the practice squad, assuming that’s not the destiny of Samuels.
As pleased as he was with his efforts against the Titans, the young rookie running back is far from satisfied with what he’s achieved so far. Asked by reporters if he felt he had a roster spot locked up, Samuels wasn't quite ready to acknowledge that possibility yet.
“I wouldn't say that. I felt like I had a good performance, but it still could be better. Still room for improvement and still, you know, things that I need to work on where I feel like that I could do way better ... I feel like I had a pretty great performance today, and I turned a couple of heads, but I’m not done yet.”
Rookie running back Jaylen Samuels turned heads with 77 yards on 15 touches against the Titans. Has he solidified a roster spot? He’s not ready to say that. pic.twitter.com/UK2GmX4hFM— Jeremy Fowler (@JFowlerESPN) August 26, 2018
Much like with Matthew Thomas at inside linebacker, it’s hard not to assume that Samuels has done enough to earn himself a roster spot. But experience has taught us that nothing is guaranteed when it comes to the final decisions about who the team will keep on the 53-man roster. Notable preseason performers in years past still have failed to make the final cut, and Samuels wouldn’t be the first to lose out in favor of a veteran player.
If Pittsburgh believes they can sneak him onto their practice squad, it wouldn’t be a complete shock to see Toussaint or Ridley start the year as the third-choice back. However, it would be even less surprising to see another team snap him up, should the Steelers dare to risk exposing Samuels to waivers. With Mike Tomlin unlikely to give anything away regarding his plans in the coming days, fans will have to wait to see how the game develops against the Panthers to gain any further insights about the possible winner of the running backs’ battle.