A couple of years ago, the 49ers signed Lawrence Okoye, a British Olympic discus athlete, as a project.
To date, Okoye – a defensive lineman -- has yet to see the field in a regular-season NFL game. Last year he spent the season on the practice squad.
This offseason, the Niners signed another foreign player with no football background, Australian rugby star Jarryd Hayne.
This time, there are indications the 49ers’ gamble might pay off more quickly.
Hayne, 27, is listed as a running back and is 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds. He left Australia as the National Rugby League’s Player of the Year in order to give the NFL a chance.
To those who’ve seen him up close, they believe he has the athletic ability to make the jump to the NFL.
Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick worked out with Hayne earlier this season at the EXOS training facility in Arizona, along with receivers Quinton Patton and Bruce Ellington.
“Phenomental athlete, just a natural,” Kaepernick told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. “Since the day I met him, since every workout he’s been at, he’s going to give you everything he has. And it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be much of a learning curve for him.”
Right now, Hayne is behind running backs Carlos Hyde, Kendall Hunter and Reggie Bush – among others – and the team may add another ballcarrier in the draft. But it’s possible that Hayne could contribute on special teams. He’s strong, rugged and fast.
“This is going to be a football player,” Kaepernick said. “He does a lot of things very well.”
Niners general manager Trent Baalke labels Hayne “a work in progress,” but says his talent is obvious. Baalke cites Hayne’s speed and ability to catch the football and field punts.
“How quickly he can transfer those physical skills into the game of football, we’re going to find out,” Baalke told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group.