Samuel, whose 12 total touchdowns as a receiver and runner this season ranked ninth among non-quarterbacks, is considered “50-50” to play in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game against Detroit after hurting his left shoulder in Saturday’s narrow victory over the Packers, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
Samuel’s status is worth watching, considering the 49ers’ high-powered offense is far less effective when the All-Pro wide receiver misses games.
Saturday marked Samuel’s second left shoulder injury this season. The first, a hairline fracture he suffered against the Browns in Week 6, cost him all but nine snaps in that loss, as well as the subsequent two games.
The Niners went 0-3 in those games, scoring exactly 17 points – their season-low – in each. Quarterback Brock Purdy threw five of his 11 interceptions this season in those three games. Christian McCaffrey, who led the NFL with 1,459 rushing yards, failed to eclipse 54 in any of those losses, though he, too, missed much of the second half against Cleveland with an oblique issue.
In their other 14 regular-season games, the 49ers averaged 31.4 points, which would have led the NFL by 1.5 points.
Even Saturday’s 24-20 win at home over the seventh-seeded Packers proved to be a slog for the top-seeded 49ers. Samuel got hurt with 5:35 remaining in the first quarter and, after multiple trips to the locker room, joined the sideline in street clothes after halftime.
The Niners managed only seven first-half points and trailed for much of the fourth quarter, until McCaffrey’s second touchdown of the game with 1:07 remaining put them up for good. The 24 points marked the fewest the Niners scored in a win all season.
Imaging on Samuel’s shoulder showed he didn’t suffer another fracture, coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday, but the receiver’s availability remains uncertain.
“It’s always a huge challenge when you lose one of your best players, but Deebo’s a little bit more unique, just because the way that we do use him, there’s not many more people who can do that stuff,” Shanahan told NBC Sports Bay Area on Saturday. “When he is a big part of the game plan, which he always is, and he goes out that early, you’ve got to move a lot of people around.”
So what makes Samuel such a difference-maker?
For starters, he’s a physical tone-setter who is among the NFL’s hardest players to tackle. Samuel’s 12 broken tackles in 2023 ranked second among qualifying wide receivers, as did his 2.9 yards after contact per reception. He averaged 8.8 yards after the catch, which led all wide receivers.
Samuel’s rare combination of size – he’s 6-foot, 216 pounds – and breakaway speed was especially evident during a Week 13 touchdown in which he caught a short pass over the middle, bounced off of a tackle attempt by Eagles linebacker Nicholas Marrow and raced past multiple Philadelphia defenders en route to a 48-yard touchdown. NFL Next Gen Stats gave Samuel a 0.1% of scoring.
“It’s just different to have the base that Deebo has, the hips, the width of his body, it’s not built like a normal receiver,” Shanahan told radio voice Greg Papa on “49ers Game Plan” at the time.
“And that’s what his advantage is in situations like that, but people like that can’t go zero to 100 as fast as he does. The way Deebo does it, when he gets that and has a direct line where he can go across the court, as we’ll say, it’s rarely not to the house.”
Samuel’s presence also opens opportunities for teammates. As someone who frequently lines up in the backfield – where he averaged 6.1 yards and scored five touchdowns on 37 carries – and out wide, Samuel commands constant attention from opposing defenses as he moves around the field.
“People are concerned with Deebo all the time,” Shanahan said last month. “That’s why we’re constantly stressing to him the importance of doing stuff on the backside, because people will watch him hard.”
Samuel earned first-team All Pro honors in 2021 after posting 1,405 receiving yards, 365 rushing yards and 14 total touchdowns. His numbers haven’t been as gaudy since the 49ers’ 2022 acquisition of the similarly versatile McCaffrey, though Samuel offered a reminder of how dynamic he can be during a torrid four-game stretch between Nov. 23 and Dec. 17 in which he totaled 441 yards and eight touchdowns.
Even in an offense featuring McCaffrey and fellow playmakers George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk, the 28-year-old Samuel stands out as a matchup nightmare who would be badly missed if he can’t play Sunday with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
Scoring 24 points like the 49ers did in the divisional round probably wouldn’t be enough against a surging Lions offense that averaged 27.1 points per game in the regular season and 27.5 through two playoff wins.
Scoring 17 points like they did without Samuel in the regular season almost certainly wouldn’t cut it.