Offseason Program

Making an impression

At the conclusion of OTAs and mandatory veteran minicamp a year ago, veteran guard Ramon Foster was asked to identify an under-the-radar player or two that had managed to make a positive impression.

"No. 40," Foster responded.

A year ago at this juncture, Foster didn't know Mike Hilton's name.

Now, everyone does.

"No. 40" went on to register four sacks and collect two interceptions as the Steelers' sub-package slot cornerback in 2017.

Not bad for a player who had initially been signed by Jacksonville as an undrafted rookie out of Mississippi in 2016, one whose only other previous NFL experience had consisted of some time spent on the Patriots' and Steelers' practice squads.

And good call, Ramon.

But what about this time around?

"No 38, the kid from North Carolina Sate," Foster said this week, shortly before the Steelers' series of spring sessions drew to a close.

"No. 38" is running back Jaylen Samuels, a fifth-round pick who arrived with a track record of catching the ball as well as running with it.

But this time around, Samuels wasn't alone among less-than-established players that had managed to turn Foster's head.

"Another one is (running back James) Conner," Foster continued. "Conner is looking really damn good. No. 38 and Conner have both had really good off-seasons.

"Another one is (wide receiver) Justin Hunter. He's making plays I didn't see him make all of last year, for sure. Justin's looking like a guy, I wouldn't be surprised if Justin has a really good year this year. Deep balls, high jump-balls, he's just catching combat catches. Justin is looking really good."

Hunter is a sixth-year pro with 82 career catches for 1,328 yards and 13 touchdown receptions. But only four of those catches have been made in a Steelers uniform (Hunter played in seven games and started one last season, his first with the Steelers).

The Steelers participate in the 2018 minicamp at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex.

Conner was a third-round draft pick out of Pitt in 2017. He carried 32 times for 144 yards in 14 games before finishing is rookie season on the reserve-injured list (knee).

"He looks well conditioned," Foster assessed. "He's a guy that's finding the hole and going, he's fast. He has to work on a few things as far as protections, but he's looking really good."

Foster is impressed with Samuels' potential as a two-way threat.

"He's doing more than just run the ball," Foster said. "Le'Veon (Bell) created the blueprint for this thing. If you're a young running back that's coming up, learn how to run the ball and catch the ball.

"He's made two or three combat catches in the end zone, back-shoulder fades and jump-balls where you're like, 'this kid's got something,' receiver stuff, which is huge. That gives him an opportunity. He's just so stoic, too. He'll catch the ball and just go back like it's work as usual. That's what you have to appreciate about a young guy like that.

"Justin, No. 38 and Conner have had really good springs. Those three are guys I'm really looking forward to seeing (in training camp), but mostly Justin."