How the 49ers can get even more out of Deebo Samuel as a receiver


Last season, according to Sports Info Solutions, the Pittsburgh Steelers involved their receivers in running plays on 26 plays for 186 yards and a touchdown. The Kansas City Chiefs ran their receivers 24 times for 194 yards and a touchdown. The Jacksonville Jaguars ran their receivers on 21 attempts for 173 yards and a touchdown. The New Orleans Saints ran their receivers 21 times for 86 yards. And the Arizona Cardinals ran their receivers 20 times for 111 yards.

There are NFL teams that like to use their receivers in the running game, and then there are the San Francisco 49ers, who have run their receivers 90 times for 581 yards and nine touchdowns. Of course, Deebo Samuel was the main instigator of this schematic build – he had 86 of those carries for 502 yards and all nine rushing touchdowns.

Since the 49ers selected Samuel in the second round of the 2019 draft from South Carolina, he’s a perfect fit with Kyle Shanahan’s offensive concepts, and while the running aspect is a big deal, there are other ways Samuel has aa pass this passing game. Even with an average quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo and a first-round development prospect in second-year man Trey Lance, Samuel has been… well, quarterback-tested, and that makes him the one of the leading receivers and weapons in the NFL.

Now that the 49ers have signed Samuel to a well-deserved, three-year, $73.5 million contract extension with $58.1 million guaranteed, the question remains: how can Samuel become even more of a dynamic weapon in the game? Shanahan Offensive? Because even though Samuel is considered a “gadget player” by some, he’s actually a complete receiver capable of winning with any concept you want to put on the board.

Maybe the news that Shanahan has decided to make Trey Lance his starting quarterback in 2022 and beyond will make that happen. Because Jimmy Garoppolo left way too much on the table. More on that in a minute. For now, let’s look at what makes Samuel so special.

(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

Samuel has movement as a runner, and he’ll run with power at 6-foot-0 and 215 pounds, but the main attribute that shows on the tape when he runs the ball is his unrivaled straight-line speed. That 19-yard touchdown against the Rams in Week 18 shows that if you give Samuel the slightest bit of a gap, his speed to and through the hole is truly rare.

And on that touchdown against the Cowboys in the wildcard round, Samuel shows the patience, acceleration, and third-level acceleration that divides the safety that can topple any field.

(Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

With most receivers, any type of slide screen or tunnel gives a decent chance of stopping play. Unless you’re playing defense against Samuel, in which case you better have eaten your proverbial Wheaties on morning of the game. Now Samuel is only showing his exceptional speed in the short areas and his long speed on such plays, he is also expert and sorts through the trash near the line of scrimmage to find the most favorable opening.

Unless he just wants to fight his way through half defense, like he did against the Seahawks in Week 4.

Here’s Samuel’s most technical side as a screen receiver — it was a 44-yard catch against the Rams in the NFC Championship, and Samuel picked up 47 yards after the catch. Samuel doesn’t just run straight ahead on these plays; he has a fabulous instinct to turn inside and use his running instinct to find the gap and exploit it.

(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

All of this rushed and on-screen stuff should perhaps line up with the somewhat popular view that Samuel is more of a target in fancy concepts who needs a Shanahan offense to excel as opposed to a legit WR1 . I do not subscribe to this theory, and I will give some examples showing why.

Let’s go back to the NFC Championship Game, where Samuel shows a professional level of understanding when it comes time to find coverage area points on a superior route. It’s not Samuel’s fault that Garoppolo couldn’t pull the trigger and opted for a dump pass to running back Elijah Mitchell instead. You pair Samuel with a quarterback who has more talent and less risk aversion and can read stuff in the middle, you’re going to see more traditional big plays from him.

Same game, same problem. Samuel executes a great post/corner route to overthrow his defender, finds open space, Garoppolo doesn’t get the memo and it’s a sack. If I were Samuel, a big part of my frustration would be the quarterback situation in San Francisco.

This 50-yard reception against the Bears in Week 8 shows how well Samuel is able to press defenders against the wall with his speed, put them in awkward positions and make the hook whether challenged or nope. There’s a lot to do with Samuel as a pure receiver that just can’t be unlocked with a mediocre quarterback.

(Cary Edmondson – USA TODAY Sports)

Lance doesn’t yet have Garoppolo’s mastery of the nuances of the quarterback position (as they are in his case), but he also doesn’t bang his head against his own ceiling like Garoppolo often does. . We’ve already seen a bit of the potential chemistry between Lance and Samuel, and it gets pretty exciting when you push that over a full season with a more developed Lance. On that 43-yard touchdown pass against the Texans in Week 17, Lance hits Samuel on a great vertical pass — just not the kind of risky speed throw Garoppolo has preferred to do in his career.

Samuel is just as savvy when it comes to helping Lance. Here against the Cardinals in Week 5, Samuel executes a deep cross and lines up his second reaction route with Lance’s run under pressure.

Even when Lance goes late into cover, Samuel is there to help. Here’s another 26-yard play against the Cardinals that Lance could have thrown Samuel in, but it didn’t matter because Samuel did what he does – he used his athleticism to turn a ball 50-50 into a distinct advantage for offense.

Deebo Samuel is one of the most unique players in the NFL today. But he also has a high-level skill set you need to become a top receiver at the NFL level. With a less cautious quarterback throwing the ball to him, it looks like the NFL is about to find out.


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