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Deebo Samuel and the 49ers: will the versatile superstar be traded, or simply swap roles?

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 14:24, 5 May 2022

Deebo Samuel – the NFL’s most versatile and singular offensive weapon – wants to be… less versatile and singular. What happens next? The San Francisco 49ers are going to find out.

Among the NFL’s offensive skill position players, speed, quickness, power, agility, surehandedness and intelligence are not short supply. However, in this sea of incredible players making their livings catching or carrying the ball, Deebo Samuel stands alone.

When he was selected by the 49ers in the second round of the 2019 draft (#36 overall), Samuel was almost exclusively a wide receiver, who, over his last three years in college, averaged about one rushing attempt per game. He’d lost most of his junior season at South Carolina to a broken fibula, making it unlikely that he’d want to battle in the trenches in the NFL. His excellent rookie season looked a lot like his two healthy college seasons: 15 games, 57 catches, 802 receiving yards and three touchdowns, and 14 rushing attempts, 159 yards (11.4 yards per carry!) and another three TDs.

However, before head coach Kyle Shanahan could get any bright ideas about deploying Samuel as a Swiss Army knife on offense, Deebo suffered a fracture in his foot during the 2020 offseason. That injury – plus hamstring injuries, plus COVID – cost him more than half of the season, and limited him to 33 catches for 391 yards and eight carries for 26 yards.

Samuel retuned for the 2021 season healthy and determined to become one of the NFL’s top wideouts. For half a season, he was exactly that! In his first eight games, he caught 49 passes for 882 yards (18 per catch!), with four touchdowns. During that stretch, he had only three more rushing attempts (6) than he did 150-yard receiving games (3).

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Then, during the 49ers’ Week 10 Monday night home game against the Rams, Samuel just, kinda morphed into a running back. He was still a prolific receiver – he caught all five of his targets for 97 yards and a touchdown – but he also caried the ball five times, for 36 yards and another TD. That the Niners blew out their division rivals (and the eventual Super Bowl champs) 31-10 was all the proof Shanahan needed to overhaul his offensive game plan.

I mean, what else are you supposed to do when blessed with a receiver who’s strong, tough and fearless enough to venture over the middle like some kind of throwback, but also fast, quick, elusive and intelligent, with elite footwork and understands angles and hitting a hole?

Over his next seven games – of which the Niners won five – Samuel served not only as a big-play receiver (23 catches, 426 yards), but was also the Niners’ most dangerous runner, gaining 307 yards on 48 carries (6.4 yards per) and scoring six touchdowns.

By the time the Niners reached the playoffs their #1 All-Pro receiver – he of 77 catches and 1,405 yards – was more  running back than wideout! In three postseason games, he caught a total of ten passes for 154 yards and a TD, while carrying the ball twenty-seven times, for 127 yards and a TD. By season’s end, on a per-play basis, Samuel was about as valuable as any player in the NFL. Thus, all indications were that ‘Operation Wide Back’ was a go!

Until.. it wasn’t. We think.

On April 21, roughly a week before the NFL Draft, it was revealed by ESPN that Samuel had asked the Niners for a trade. At the time of writing, Samuel hasn’t revealed his specific issue with the Niners. Initial speculation was that this – as these things tend to be – was a matter of money. After all, he’d just seen a flurry in free agency in which lesser receivers (Christian Kirk, for instance) got massive paydays, while the game’s best (Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill) got traded and completely reset the receiver salary scale.

Later, however, talk surfaced that the issue wasn’t money – Samuel knows he’s going to get paid, and the Niners are willing to pay him – but rather the way in which Samuel is used in the offense.  Apparently, for as good as Deebo is at playing tailback, he doesn’t love the idea of regularly risking injury (and, even under the best of circumstances, consistently getting knocked around) at an increasingly less lucrative position that’s notorious for truncating careers?

If we’re being honest, it’s tough no to see his point. And, given that just about every NFL team would love just the ‘receiver’ version of Samuel on their roster, if the Niners don’t sufficiently address his concerns, someone will.

The Niners remain adamant that they have no intention of trading Samuel. At the same time, they’d got to do something to placate the (by a hilarious margin) most significant element of their attack. For starters, the team used a third round pick to select LSU running back Ty Davis-Price, to both complement tailback Elijah Mitchell and, theoretically, reduce the need for Samuel to play running back.

Chances are we haven’t seen the very end of Deebo Samuel as Swiss Army Knife extraordinaire. However, we should reasonably expect that player to increasingly make cameos, rather than stand centerstage.

(sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone…)

Here’s hoping that everyone that watched 2021 Deebo appreciated what we were seeing – and that we make a conscious point of doing so whenever that guy surfaces in the future.

✕︎

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