The San Francisco 49ers took a flier earlier this year on National Rugby League player Jarryd Hayne, signing him to a three year contract. Hayne has been working out in Arizona with Colin Kaepernick, and will join the team in Santa Clara next month when the offseason workout program begins.
Head coach Jim Tomsula had his first chance to publicly comment on Hayne during the NFC coaches' breakfast at the owners' meetings in Arizona. Tomsula was excited by the "explosive qualities" he brought to the field, and thinks his specific playing experience will be a significant benefit for him.
"He's a guy used to being downfield catching a ball with people running at him," Tomsula said of Hayne. "He's used to making tackles in open spaces. You've got a guy used to carrying the ball, catching the ball and avoiding. Obviously, with the explosive qualities that he has, you can't help but be excited."
Part of Hayne's role involved returning kicks, so it makes sense that he will get some opportunities as a return man. He will get a chance to learn the running back role, but it would make sense to see him potentially in some kind of H-back role. I imagine they will not want to throw too much at him right away, but his skill-set offers some notable opportunities.
Hayne marks the second foreign athlete the 49ers have brought to the Bay Area in hopes of turning them into an NFL player. Lawrence Okoye joined the team in 2012, and is entering his third offseason with the team. He spent last season on the practice squad, and remains a very raw prospect. Tomsula talked about how he is learning something entirely new, while Hayne will get opportunities at a position that is not altogether different from his Rugby League experience.
The question is how much that will benefit him. Enough to earn a spot on the 53-man roster this year? Even with no NFL experience, it would not be unprecedented for Hayne to get a shot on the 53-man roster at some point this season. Back in 2012, the New York Jets signed rugby union player Hayden Smith. He started the season as a tight end on the practice squad, but was promoted to the active roster in late October. He caught one NFL pass, and was released in 2013 during August roster cuts. He subsequently returned to rugby union.
Hayne is about the same age as Smith was when he joined the NFL, but there is the notable difference that Hayne played Rugby League and Smith played Rugby Union. However, tight end seems like it would be a bit more difficult to master given the combination of blocking and route running. Running back and returner seems to be a little more in Hayne's wheel house.
Of course, there is also the difference of Smith joining the Jets, and Hayne joining the 49ers. Even though the 49ers have question marks heading into the 2015 season, they still have a lot of talent on the roster. Hayne faces a tall order cracking this roster. At running back, the team has Carlos Hyde, Reggie Bush and Kendall Hunter likely making the roster. If he can prove effective as a return man though, it could make some sense keeping him as the fourth running back. The next five months are incredibly critical for him, particularly from a returner perspective. There are natural athletic elements to it, but there are also key aspects in terms of reading blocks. The four-game preseason is always interesting with bubble candidates, but Hayne adds a little bit more to it for me.