NFL

49ers: Deebo Samuel Is Changing the Way Teams Look at Wide Receivers

No one knew who Deebo Samuel was when he was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers. After a season of terrific performances, he’s single-handedly changing the way NFL teams build their offenses. He got a lot of success out of the unique way Kyle Shanahan deployed him within their scheme. Could Samuel’s versatile style become the norm in the near future?

Deebo came from nowhere to power the 49ers offense

When Deebo Samuel entered the NFL, fans were more excited that there was a football player named after the iconic character from the movie Friday than by the potential of what he could bring to the then-rebuilding 49ers. 

The man born Tyshun Raequan Samuel (he earned the nickname Deebo because he had a habit of just taking things from people as a kid) was not a nationally relevant prospect at the time. He was a three-star recruit in high school, and he put decent, but unspectacular numbers for a South Carolina team that only finished with winning seasons twice in four years. 

Samuel was selected with the 36th overall pick in last year’s draft. Even those in the Niners front office who vouched for picking him couldn’t have imagined him having such an impact so soon. San Francisco shocked the football world to become one of the most complete teams in the league, nearly winning Super Bowl despite having a questionable quarterback.  Samuel played an important role in the team’s high-scoring offense. 

He caught 57 passes for 802 yards and three touchdowns, while also adding another three from the running game. Samuel isn’t the first hybrid receiver to turn heads on the field, Shanahan’s game plan gave him a platform that most players like him never had before. 

What made him so great?

Deebo Samuel making the catch
Deebo Samuel | Patrick Smith/Getty Images

In the hands of most offensive minds, Samuel would be used as a gimmick option here and there, but San Francisco designed their offense to consistently put him in a position to succeed. 

Other teams have tried to leverage the unique skills of players like Cordarrelle Patterson, Curtis Samuel, or Percy Harvin in both the passing and rushing game – Harvin ran the ball 52 times in 2011 – but their attempts often fail because of a lack of imagination. All of their explosiveness and ability to get yards after the catch didn’t count for much if they’re being used in standard, up the middle run plays. According to Pro Football Focus, teams averaged negative-0.118 expected points added per WR rush last season, which is equal to the EPA average on all runs from all other positions combined in the league. Wide receiver screens weren’t much better, averaging just negative-0.114 EPA per play.

Short passes and WR carries are as regular as any other play in the playbook for the 49ers. The outside-zone running game that powers their offense sets up many avenues for play-action passes and other forms of trickery. 

The result is that Samuel is capable of making a big play on every snap. He averaged 14 yards per reception and 11 yards per rush. He ranked 13th in the league for overall yards after catch (YAC) despite having significantly fewer receptions than most of the players above him.  

Is it possible to replicate his success with different players?

The NFL is a copycat league, so it should come as no surprise that other teams are looking at ways to replicate Samuel’s performances in their offenses. The teams with the most in place to do so have coaches who either worked with Shanahan in the past, or use a version of the system that his father Mike developed in the ’90s – The Packers, Titans, Browns, Vikings, Rams, and Bengals fit that description. The players best suited to this role tend to be shorter and have some experience as a kick returner. 

San Francisco will have to incorporate new players into this system themselves. Samuel will miss at least 12 to 16 weeks with a Jones fracture in his foot he suffered while working out with teammates in Tennessee. They appear to have a ready-made replacement. They traded up in the draft to select Brandon Aiyuk with the 25th pick. In his final college season at Arizona State, he averaged 9.9 YAC, the best mark among receivers in his class. Samuel’s influence is already growing. 

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