The Pittsburgh Steelers may be down to their third option at running back. After Le’Veon Bell’s much-publicized holdout, the Pittsburgh running attack has gone through James Conner for the grand majority of the season. However, Conner suffered a leg contusion towards the end of Week 13’s matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers. Should he miss an extended period of time, rookie Jaylen Samuels will be the lead back in his absence.
Samuels will have opportunities to make plays, but can he capitalize on said opportunities? The rookie has hardly seen any playing time this season, so nobody definitively knows what to expect from him. However, based on all observable metrics, there’s every reason to believe Samuels can carry the load and be a startable option in fantasy football.
Fantasy Football: Jaylen Samuels Can Fill In For James Conner, If Necessary
While Samuels plays running back, he’s far more than just a pure rusher. The first-year Steeler is actually a fairly gifted pass-catcher who’s capable of making plays all over the formation. Entering the NFL, some scouts believed Samuels would be better utilized as a tight end. Interestingly enough, as of this posting, he is listed as a tight end in Yahoo fantasy leagues. That will probably change soon, but it just goes to show how multitalented he is.
In today’s game, versatility is a good thing. Offensive coordinators are more creative than ever and will line players up all over the field. During his final year in college, Samuels saw time as a traditional runner, running jet sweeps, lining up in the slot and out wide, and even running the wildcat offense. Basically, he could do a little bit of everything, even if he didn’t specialize in any one thing.
Samuels is at his best in the passing game, and that skillset fits beautifully with the Steelers offense. Le’Veon Bell and James Conner both saw hefty amounts of targets in the passing game, so it’s not like Pittsburgh isn’t afraid to use their running backs out of the backfield.
While Samuels is a better receiver than a rusher, he’s still capable of taking a handoff and getting decent success. In his senior year, Samuels recorded 407 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on 78 attempts, good for a 5.2 yards-per-carry average. Samuels can use his 5’-11”, 228-pound frame to push the pile and win in short-yardage situations. This obviously helps from a fantasy perspective, as he’ll likely be called up in goal-line situations.
On his own, Samuels projects as a good receiving threat out of the backfield who does just enough on the ground to keep a defense honest. However, real football games aren’t played in a vacuum. So much of fantasy production comes from variables outside of a certain players’ control. Fortunately, it appears as though said factors will actually benefit Samuels’ in Week 14, making him an even better fantasy option.
Assuming James Conner doesn’t play, opposing defenses will change what they do to defend the Pittsburgh offense. The Steelers have arguably the best receiver duo in the league in Antonio Brown and JuJu Smith-Schuster and one of the better quarterbacks in Ben Roethlisberger. With Conner out of the picture, opposing defenses will probably devote more resources to taking away the passing game.
Samuels should be a direct beneficiary of this. Obviously, it’s easier to pick up rushing yards when there are fewer defenders playing close to the line of scrimmage. The Oakland Raiders, Pittsburgh’s Week 14 opponent, will probably dare the Steelers to beat them on the ground. If the Steelers are smart, they’ll impose their will on a bad Raiders run defense.
The Pittsburgh Steelers don’t have a great run-blocking line, but it’s not a bad unit either. Per Football Outsiders, the unit ranks 14th in the league at run blocking. While they’re not nearly as good as the Los Angeles Rams, they’re still capable of giving their running backs a chance on each and every snap. However, the offensive line is not why the Steelers have a great matchup.
The Oakland Raiders are one of the worst teams in the league by just about every measure, and their run defense is no exception. The Raiders have been gashed all year on the ground and are currently 30th in Football Outsiders’ rush defense efficiency. It won’t take much for the Steelers offensive line to beat the Raiders in the trenches. Samuels won’t have to do much more than just follow his blocks.
Additionally, the Raiders cannot stop running backs in the passing game. Football Outsiders currently ranks the Raiders 23rd against running backs out of the backfield. All in all, the Raiders are allowing the ninth-most fantasy points to running backs in standard scoring.
Last Word on Jaylen Samuels
Jaylen Samuels is why you handcuff your studs. Even though he hasn’t had many snaps, there’s every reason to believe the Steelers fifth-round pick will have a strong outing against the Oakland Raiders. Samuels is a versatile weapon capable of beating defenses at multiple parts of the field. Pittsburgh loves using their running backs in the passing game, which is where Samuels thrives.
While he’s not quite as gifted as a runner, he’s still capable of getting modest production between the tackles. He averaged over five yards per carry in college and the frame to be a strong goal-line back. Once Pittsburgh gets into the red zone, they’ll likely turn the ball over to Samuels. Red zone touches are easily the most valuable in fantasy and should give Samuels a high ceiling.
Additionally, the matchup is fantastic. The Oakland Raiders are one of the worst defenses in the league at defending the running back position. They’re 30th in run efficiency, meaning that the Steelers offensive line should be able to plow through the Raiders defensive line. All Samuels will have to do is follow his blocks to have a good day on the ground.
On top of that, the Raiders rank 23rd against running backs in the passing game. This is the matchup Samuels can exploit, as he’s already shown the ability to be a dangerous weapon in the passing game. With no clear way to cover him, Samuels should wreak havoc upon the Raiders linebackers trying to cover him.
Obviously, this all goes out the window if James Conner recovers in time to play in Week 14. However, at this moment in time, nobody knows if he’ll suit up on Sunday. It’s better to have Samuels and not need him than it is to need him and not have him. Even if you’re not the Conner owner, Samuels can be a smart add if you need a quick start. If you are the Conner owner and Samuels is out on waivers, make sure you put in a high claim to grab him.
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