Jarryd Hayne didn't leave Australia's National Rugby League for the NFL for money -- he actually took about a $4 million pay cut. He didn't leave for personal glory -- he was already the two-time player of the year in the NRL, winning the honors in 2009 and 2014.
He left to see if he could make it in the NFL. And through two preseason games, it certainly looks like he's good enough to do just that.
On Sunday night, Hayne once again looked legit, returning three punts for 84 yards. And he led the team in rushing for the second straight game, putting together 54 yards on eight carries, including a 34-yarder:
Hayne is averaging 21.6 yards per return thus far -- small sample size, but well over the figure that would've made him the league leader in 2014 -- and has led the Niners in rushing in both games he's played. He also has a 33-yard kickoff return, which is pretty good.
Watch those highlights. Now watch Hayne's rugby highlights:
It's easy to see the skill that made him such a star: He was incredibly elusive running with the ball in space, speedy enough to blow past some players, shifty enough to juke others. And when he ran into a defender who wasn't in perfect position, he rarely went down, using his momentum and upper body strength to truck through weak tackle attempts.
There are differences between the NFL and rugby league: Hayne no longer has to make tackles or kick the ball or pass it. But Hayne running with the football in space while returning a punt looks almost exactly like Hayne moving with the ball in rugby. He's just running alongside people trying to stop him from running, and most of the time, he's winning.
Football is an incredibly complex game with tomes for playbooks, multifaceted strategic schemes and technically precise rules. But when Hayne catches a ball and finds himself with space, he's following instincts. And his natural talents do the rest. This isn't like when a college basketball player tries to cut it as an NFL WR, learning a completely different sport. This is Hayne doing what he knows how to do.
Hayne is 6'2, 220 pounds and runs a 4.52 40. That would've made him the fifth-fastest running back in this year's NFL Draft combine, and only one of the players faster than him weighs as much. But Hayne not only possesses that rare combination of speed and size, he also has an obvious innate capability to make opponents miss. That's an NFL player.
Will Hayne be the 49ers' starting running back? Well, quite frankly, no. Although Hayne has looked good with the ball in space, playing full-time NFL running back requires a lot of other things -- operating in tight spaces, reading plays, following blockers, pass protection, route-running on passing plays. These plays look quite a bit different than what Hayne did in rugby league. (And it's also worth noting that Hayne's biggest plays have come against opposing backups.)
Hayne has looked really, really, really, really impressive thus far. But his natural talents aren't yet enough to overtake the guys ahead of him on the depth chart -- a talented young RB in Carlos Hyde and an established NFL playmaker in Reggie Bush.
But will Hayne make the roster? At this point, he definitely should.
The 49ers are likely to keep four running backs on their roster, and right now they have five who seem to merit inclusion: Hyde, Bush, Hayne, rookie Mike Davis and Kendall Hunter, who had produced solidly for the Niners for several years before a 2014 ACL tear that kept him out all last season and, so far, all of this preseason.
Today, Hayne already looks like an above-average NFL punt returner. That in itself could be enough to put him on the roster over a proven, but not spectacular commodity in Hunter. If he uses his tremendous athletic gifts to grow the rest of the facets of his game, he could be somebody truly special. The Niners should take a shot on hoping that potential pans out. If not, another team almost certainly will.
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