Every once in a while a player comes along who redefines their position.
We’ve seen positionless defensive players, hybrid safety-linebacker types. We’ve seen corners who can play in the slot or happily kick out to the boundary. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the rise of the polar bears, tight ends as adept at mauling fools in the run-game as they are running down the field as their team’s finest receiver.
And yet, as a football collective, we’ve waited for the unicorn: The running back-wide receiver. There have been flashes. The spread revolution gave rise to tweener players, those who could align in the backfield as a running back or wriggle out to the slot (or wider) to catch passes. Getting the ball to your best athletes in space became the doctrine of offensive football.
In the college ranks, the likes of Tavon Austin and Percy Harvin embraced football’s move from a tough, between-the-tackles, thumping sport to one based on the principles of pace and space.
But in the NFL, coaches have always favored specialists over the hybrids. They didn’t need a receiver to line up at running back – they had a world-class running back to do that. They didn’t need a running back to flex out as the outermost receiver, they had all the elite receivers they could handle. These were professionals, masters of their craft; there was no time for split duty.
In Deebo Samuel, the unicorn has finally arrived. Samuel is the San Francisco 49ers’ best running back and the team’s best receiver. He may be the finest running back and the finest receiver in the league, at least in terms of efficiency and explosiveness. If he’s not, he’s as near as makes no difference.
There is a childlike glee to Samuel’s brilliance. To watch him is to see an athlete who is stronger and faster than the 21 other human beings on the field – and those 21 humans are among the strongest and fastest athletes on the planet. Samuel brings intricacy for the nerds and loud highlights for when you just want to see cool athletes doing the coolest things. With the ball in his hands, he’s a leaning, bobbing, weaving, stop-on-a-dime phantom.
The Niners offense now revolves around finding an ever-increasing number of ways to get the ball to Samuel, or leveraging his threat into easy yards for everyone else.
Smart teams have always sought crossover skillsets. During the heyday of the Bill Belichick-Tom Brady Patriots, the team would bring in a back whose receiving chops outdid their running skills. They would move that player around to identify mismatches. But that was the player’s value – as a moving chess piece that helped Brady identify coverages more than as an individual runner or receiver. Their flexibility was a big percentage of their overall value. It was about what they did without the ball as much as what they did with it.
With Samuel, it’s about how he damages defenses when the ball winds up in his hands, no matter his starting position.
So far this season, he has played 555 snaps split out as the outermost wide receiver, 222 in the slot, eight as an in-line ‘tight end’, and 93 as a running back. The trend of moving him around on a snap-to-snap basis is relatively new, though. As recently as Week 9, Samuel had played only seven snaps lined up in the backfield all season. Since then, he’s averaged nine snaps in the backfield per game (21% of his snaps). The past two games – the do or die game against the Rams in Week 18 and the playoff matchup with the Cowboys – represent the only times this season he’s taken more snaps as a running back than as a slot receiver, the position from which Kyle Shanahan typically initiates all the fun and games in his offense.
Of course, lining up in a bunch of spots in and of itself is no great skill. It doesn’t matter where you align, or in how many spots, if you stink at most or all of them. And that’s where Samuel breaks the convention: He’s the best at everything he does.
His output is jarring: 1,770 total yards, at an average of 13 yards per touch, with 14 touchdowns tacked on for good measure. He’s a walking first down; a human touchdown.
If you’re into the fancier metrics you’ll know Samuel holds something of a monopoly over all of the league’s key categories, be it as a back or receiver. He led the NFL in the regular season in yards per reception. He’s averaging more than 10 yards after the catch per reception. To put that in context, no other receiver broke the seven-yard barrier during the regular season.
If that’s not enough, Samuel leads the league in yards per route run on targets of 20-yards or more down the field. That’s comfortably ahead of Ja’Marr Chase. It’s streaks ahead of Davante Adams, Stefon Diggs, and Tyreek Hill.
The numbers keep coming. Samuel finished second in the league in yards after contact per attempt. He finished second in the league in ‘breakaway’, which measures the percentage of a player’s rushing yards that come on runs of 15-yards or more. You have to go all the way down to [rubs fake glasses, squints a little] 60th on the list to find the next non-running back. There is not another wide receiver in the top 200.
He also happens to lead the league in the Guardian’s own Holy Bleep Is That Possible Should That Be Allowed Is That Even Fair™ metric.
Players of Samuel’s ilk used to be interesting footnotes and quirks. There are players now sprinkled around the league who take snaps in the backfield and outside as a receiver on a semi-consistent basis. Cordarrelle Patterson had a late-career resurgence in Atlanta this season. Curtis Samuel has filled a similar role in Carolina and Washington. Rondale Moore moves all over the shop in Arizona. In Buffalo, the Bills’ Isaiah McKenzie is able to nudge close to Samuel’s output.
Yet Samuel is the only multi-positional weapon assuming the creative pulse of a playoff offense. He is the only one piloting a championship contender, helping to elevate a flawed quarterback – by way of an outstanding offensive line. He is the only one who runs the ball with a battering-ram style then breaks out in ballet when asked to run routes.
It is tempting to paint Samuel as the first of a new kind of positionless player. But to do so would be to understate the absurdity of his season and talent. Samuel hasn’t pushed up against the idea of positional designations but fractured them altogether. There are running backs, there are receivers, there are hybrids, and then there is Deebo Samuel.