Jaylen Samuels was the perfect New England Patriots draft pick, until he wasn’t.
Samuels, a 6-0, 225-pound hybrid running back/slot receiver, did a little bit of everything at N.C. State. He ran the ball, he caught passes (a school-record 202) and mostly he scored touchdowns (47). He was the exactly the type of versatile, overlooked player Bill Belichick would scoop up in the middle of a draft and turn into a key cog on a Super Bowl winner.
But New England didn’t end up with Samuels in the NFL draft last April. The Pittsburgh Steelers did, in the fifth round. Samuels showed Belichick and the Patriots what they missed out on in a 17-10 win for the Steelers on Sunday.
Filling in for an injured James Conner, Samuels -- or “JaySam” to everyone at N.C. State -- ran 19 times for 142 yards. The Charlotte native also caught two passes for 30 yards.
“I knew how big this game was for us and our organization,” Samuels said in the post-game press conference posted on the Steelers’ website. “I just wanted to go out there and give it my all and don’t have no letdowns with James being out.”
Even with star running back Le’Veon Bell in a contract stalemate with the Steelers, Samuels has mostly bided his time during his rookie season (although he did catch a touchdown in a win over his hometown Carolina Panthers on Nov. 8)
Conner, a former Pitt star and the ACC player of the year in 2014, has emerged as the Steelers’ go-to back. He has rushed for a team-best 909 yards and has 467 receiving yards but he injured an ankle in a home loss to the Los Angeles Chargers on Dec. 2.
After Conner got hurt in the loss to the Chargers, Samuels caught a touchdown pass in the second half. Samuels got his first NFL start in a disappointing 24-21 loss to the Oakland Raiders on Dec. 9.
Samuels caught seven passes for 64 yards against the Raiders but only ran for 28 yards on 11 carries.
“We just had to bounce back,” Samuels said. “We had a good week of practice, preparation. I just got back there, stayed relaxed and then once I saw a hole, i just tried to burst through it and make a play.”
That’s the kind of mentality that made Samuels so productive at N.C. State. He led the Wolfpack in catches in 2015, ‘16 and 17. He finished his career with 202 catches for 1,855 yards and 19 touchdowns.
A big workload
He also ran for 1,103 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns in his four-year Wolfpack career. He never did have a 100-yard rushing game for the Wolfpack, though or carry the ball 19 times in a game.
“I’ve never had 19 carries,” Samuels said. “I feel good. It was a heckuva a workload. That’s what comes with playing running back in the National Football League.”
When Belichick came to N.C. State’s Pro Day in March, he asked Wolfpack coach Dave Doeren about Samuels.
“He likes him,” Doeren said before the draft. “He’s intrigued by ‘JaySam’ and the different things he can do within their system.”
But Belichick took a running back early (Georgia’s Sony Michel at the end of the first round) and then traded out of the third and fourth rounds. With the sixth pick in the fifth round, the Patriots took linebacker Ja’whaun Bentley. Twenty-two picks later, the Steelers took Samuels.
Eight months later, Samuels showed Belichick what he missed out on.