Case in point: In 2019, Michael Thomas went absolutely crazy for the Saints and fantasy fans with nearly 375 fantasy points on a record 149 catches for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns. As a result, he was the consensus No. 1 wide receiver in fantasy drafts and a surefire first-round pick. The sequel, however, wasn’t as good.
Thomas then averaged a fantastic 12 points per game, down more than 11 points from the previous year, and missed nine games through injury. It’s hard to predict long-term illness, of course, but Thomas wasn’t as productive even when playing.
The point here is that not many people saw this coming because Thomas was so good in 2019. That brings me to this series, aptly named “The Fantasy Case Against…” where I’ll do my due diligence looking at players who all the world in fantasy land seems to think it’s a safe bet to stay ultra-productive after enjoying a high level of success in past seasons.
The series shines a light on big-name players or those coming out of huge statistical years who could see a surprising drop in fantasy success. Like I always say, the one predictable thing about the NFL is that it’s often unpredictable. And while we love our fantasy heroes on the grill, no one is ever guaranteed success.
I started the 2022 series “The Fantasy Case Against” with Cooper Kupp and Davante Adams, so now let’s take a look at another superstar wide receiver, Deebo Samuel.
Samuel was one of the top three wide receivers in fantasy football, behind only Kupp and Adams. He recorded 77 catches on a team-high 121 targets with 1,405 yards and six touchdowns. Samuel too precipitate for an impressive 365 yards and eight touchdowns playing in a “wide back” role and finished with a fantastic personal best 339 points. In total, about a quarter of his fantasy points came from runs out of the backfield.
Did you know?
According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Samuel had an overall average draft position (ADP) of 89.8 in the 2021 Fantasy Football drafts. He was the 38th wide receiver selected on average, behind Corey Davis, Laviska Shenault, Robby Anderson and Michael Thomas (to name a few). None of those four wides finished higher than 49th at the position. Samuel’s teammate Brandon Aiyuk was selected 53.9, 16 wide ahead of him. The Arizona State product would finish as a WR35, 32 spots behind Samuel.
Samuel’s fantastic 339 points ranks fifth all-time among 49ers wide receivers, behind only the great Jerry Rice (1995, 1994, 1993, 1986). He is also the only wide in the franchise’s all-time top 10 (based on PPR score) not named Rice or Terrell Owens.
The fact that Samuel was used in a wide-back role was a real boost to his value and production level. As I mentioned earlier, about 25% of his total fantasy points came as a runner. Historically, his 365 rushing yards ranks fourth among Super Bowl-era wide receivers. Tavon Austin (434 yards in 2015), Ty Montgomery (390 yards in 2016) and Joshua Cribbs (381 yards in 2009) are the only players listed as wide receivers by their respective teams who had more yards.
While fourth in single-season rushing yards among wides, Samuel’s eight rushing touchdowns are the most by a wide receiver in the Super Bowl era. Only one other wide, Austin (2015), has as many as four ground scores in a single year.
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Training and personnel changes
Samuel will continue to be a star of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offensive line. The coach maintains his relationship with his veteran wide receiver has “always been good” despite Samuel cleaning his social media of all 49ers content earlier this offseason. Things seem to be going better between the two teams, as Samuel showed up for the 49ers’ mandatory minicamp but did not participate in team drills.
Assuming there are no setbacks in the summer months, Samuel shouldn’t be a risk for fantasy managers. However, there could be a risk in his changing wide-back role in the immediate future. NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport reports Samuel likely won’t see as many carries ‘between tackles’ and team made a few moves this offseason that will limit his use to ‘gadget games’ on the field .
The team re-signed veteran Jeff Wilson Jr. and selected Tyrion Davis-Price in the NFL Draft, adding to a backfield depth roster that includes Elijah Mitchell, Trey Sermon and JaMycal Hasty . Shanahan used Samuel out of necessity last season as the Niners saw a number of fullbacks drop out due to injury, including starter Raheem Mostert. Re-signing Wilson and drafting Davis-Price will mean less Samuel as a runner.
The 49ers will also have a new mobile quarterback under center in Trey Lance. While we love his advantage from a fantasy standpoint, the North Dakota State product has a lot to prove as a passer to the next level. He had just 71 attempts as a rookie, completing 57.7% of his passes while throwing five touchdowns with two interceptions.
Lance is also a dual-threat quarterback, which was evident in his 1,100 rushing yards in his last full college season. He will extend plays much more than Jimmy Garoppolo, which is good for his receivers. However, he will also put the ball away and run often.
Samuel is a surefire top-20 overall selection after what was a breakout campaign in 2021, but I would say the regression in fantasy points is inevitable. If Samuel actually sees fewer litters and, above all, litters in the red zone (14 in 2021), his numbers are bound to drop. Again, 25% of his total PPR fantasy points last season came from behind.
Without those backfield looks, Samuel would still have finished with 254.5 points as a wide receiver last season. That would have been enough to rank 11th among the wide, 3.3 points behind Keenan Allen and 7.9 points ahead of Mike Williams.
No one can doubt his playmaking skills and his ability on the gridiron. Samuel is a tackle-breaking machine who should remain a productive part of Shanahan’s attack in 2022 and beyond. But I can easily see an 80-100 drop in fantasy points this season. He’s still good enough to be a No. 1 or 2 wide-range fantasy in PPR formats, but this projected decline in his wide-back role should have fantasy fans worried.
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Michael Fabian is awarded fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and instagram for your fantastic breaking news and the best analysis in the business!