Like any business, NFL teams are always looking for a creative edge. Building a stadium to trap in noise or creating a new formation is common, as they are more easily constructed. Producing a top talent no one knows about is more difficult, but there’s a good track record with putting pads on a raw athlete.
The San Francisco 49ers hope the signing of Australian rugby player Jarryd Hayne will be up there with the likes of Bob Hayes or Antonio Gates. Even if he’s the next Vince Papale, the project will be a success.
There’s no doubting his athletic ability. He was the third-fastest Aussie rugby player, registering a 4.5-second 40-yard dash and his complete set of skills made him the highest paid player down under. What critics doubted upon signing him back in March was his ability to adapt to the nuances of American football opposed to the styling of rugby.
Most of the critics should have been silenced Saturday night after coach Jim Tomsula gave him second-team snaps at running back during a matchup with the Houston Texans.
On five carries, Hayne picked up 63 yards, turning heads on a 53-yard run. He navigated holes well and showed he can pick up extra yards with his speed, running through arm tackles easily.
And he feels comfortable, stating the following to ESPN:.
“I didn’t want to go out there and look like a rugby player; I wanted to look like an American NFL player. And I felt I did that.”
Of course, one run doesn’t land a player on the 53-man roster. It’s a player’s whole repertoire that will keep him around. If Hayne keeps his performance up the rest of the season on all of his assignments, he’ll have no trouble making the cut.
Like the Philadelphia Eagles’ signing of Papale in 1976, he’ll likely be placed on special teams to work his way up the ladder. Hayne returned one kickoff for 33 yards and two punt returns for 24 yards. It’s a small sample size, but he could very well unseat returner Bruce Ellington who averaged 25.6 yards on kick returns and 8.6 yards on punts.
Hayne is too athletic — albeit a little raw — not to use or keep on hand considering he’s a once in a lifetime find as players at the top of the ranks in one sport do not pack their things on a whim.
The 49ers are paying him $100,000 guaranteed as a trial run. They aren’t breaking the bank for someone that has shown he can respond to whatever the call of duty. I’d imagine they’ll be looking at using him on punt or kickoff defense, as well to see just how much they can squeeze out of him. The Dallas Cowboys are doing similarly with their rookie backup quarterback Jameill Showers. There’s no harm in trying their hand with a 6’2″, 220-pound bullet if a quarterback is up to the task.
Keeping Hayne around won’t be detrimental even if he is the fifth running back on the roster (though he could easily climb up to No. 4 ahead of rookie Mike Davis). Imagine him as a flex player you’d draft in your fantasy league. He’s another head that can be plugged in as a running back, but his versatility and tenacity will guide him through any other position he’s placed in.