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Last season, per 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 run game, and then, there is the San Francisco 49ers, who ran their receivers 90 times for 581 yards and nine touchdowns. Of course, Deebo Samuel was the primary instigator in that schematic construct — he had 86 of those runs for 502 yards and all nine rushing touchdowns.
Ever since the 49ers selected Samuel in the second round of the 2019 draft out of South Carolina, he’s been a perfect fit in Kyle Shanahan’s offensive concepts, and while the running aspect of it is a huge deal, there are other ways in which Samuel has made that passing game go. Even with an average quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo and a developmental first-round prospect in second-year man Trey Lance, Samuel has been… well, quarterback-proof, and it makes him one of the NFL’s premier receivers and weapons.
Now, it appears that Shanahan’s primary weapon, outside of tight George Kittle, wants out of Dodge.
Breaking News: I just spoke to wide receiver Deebo Samuel — and he told me that he has asked the 49ers to trade him.
He did not want to discuss specific reasons behind his request, but he has indeed let the 49ers know his desire to leave the organization. More to come.
— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) April 20, 2022
Perhaps late-season usage was an issue.
~2021 Deebo Samuel~
Weeks 1-8: NFL-best 113.0 scrimmage yards/G (8 games, 6 carries, 80 targets)
*change in role*
Week 9 on: 105.2 scrimmage yards/G (11 games, 80 carries, 53 targets)
— Mike Clay (@MikeClayNFL) April 20, 2022
With the trades of Tyreek Hill to the Dolphins and Davante Adams to the Raiders, it’s already been Moving Day multiple times for some of the league’s best receivers. Word is that the 49ers have wanted to extend Samuel’s contract, but there are other issues that have him wanting a new home.
As this news comes less than two weeks before the 2022 NFL draft, it makes the possibility of a haul of picks back to the 49ers a distinct possibility. San Francisco doesn’t have a pick in the draft until the 61st selection in the second round — their 29th pick now belongs to the Chiefs, who got it from the Dolphins in the Tyreek Hill deal, and it originally went to Miami so that San Francisco could trade up for Lance last year. If the 49ers are to deal Samuel, it’s a better time to do it with a stacked receiver class, but it’s also entirely arguable that there’s no receiver in this class who can replicate Samuel’s unique brilliance.
Now, there are two questions to answer if the 49ers-Samuel relationship is part the point of repair, for whatever reasons: Which teams should be most interested in Samuel, and how could Shanahan and his staff look to replace him for the 2022 season and beyond?
Let’s start with what makes Samuel special.
Samuel wins as a runner like no other NFL receiver.
(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
Samuel has moves as a runner, and he’ll run with power at 6-foot-0 and 215 pounds, but the primary attribute that shows up on tape when he’s running the ball is his peerless straight-line speed. This 19-yard touchdown against the Rams in Week 18 shows that if you give Samuel the slightest of gaps, his speed to and through the hole is truly rare.
Winning on screens with movement and acceleration.
(Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)
With most receivers, any kind of slip or tunnel screen results in a decent chance to stop the play. Unless you’re playing defense against Samuel, in which case you had better have eaten your proverbial Wheaties on gameday morning. Now only does Samuel flash his outstanding short-area quickness and long speed on such plays, he’s also expert and sorting through trash near the line of scrimmage to find the most favorable opening.
Unless he just wants to bull his way through half a defense, as he did against the Seahawks in Week 4.
A better quarterback would reveal Samuel as a complete receiver.
(AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
All this rushing and screen stuff may have to aligning with the somewhat popular opinion that Samuel is more of a gadget player who needs a Shanahan offense to excel as opposed to a legitimate WR1. I do not subscribe to that theory, and I’ll give a couple examples showing why.
Back to the NFC Championship game, where Samuel shows a professional level of understanding when it’s time to find zone points in coverage on an over 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 that has more talent and is less risk-averse and can read stuff over the middle, you’re going to see more traditional big plays from him.
This 50-yard reception against the Bears in Week 8 shows just how well Samuel is able to press defenders to the wall with his speed, put them in uncomfortable positions, and make the catch, whether it’s contested or not. There’s a lot on the plate with Samuel as a pure receiver that simply can’t be unlocked with a mediocre quarterback.
Who could replace Samuel in Kyle Shanahan's offense?
(Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports)
It’s a tough question, because Samuel isn’t specifically replaceable in his current role, per se. But Boise State’s Khalil Shakir had 21 rushing attempts last season for 130 yards last season, including this 23-yard scamper against Colorado State.
Where would Deebo Samuel fit best?
(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)
Any of the teams mentioned above, who already have “Samuel packages” in their offenses, would be great fits. The Jets would like to expand that part of their offense, and the Chiefs — who lost their primary backfield receiver threat and screen weapon when they traded Hill away — also saw Samuel play at an MVP level against them in the first half of Super Bowl LIV. One assumes that Samuel would like to play for a quarterback capable of more than Garoppolo (and perhaps Lance) is capable of; Mahomes would certainly qualify.
There’s also the contract to consider. Samuel is in the final year of his rookie deal, and he’s carrying a 2022 cap charge of $4,890,519, per OverTheCap.com. Any team trading for him would have to be well-equipped to give him a highly lucrative contract extension; right now, that’s going to likely give him an average of $20 million per year or more. The list of teams that could handle that in 2022 without some serious short-term math, or a heavily backloaded deal, is relatively small. Then, you have to deal with the idea that in a heavy receiver class, you’re giving up maybe a first-round pick and other picks, or a collection of other high picks.
Deebo Samuel has proven to be the kind of receiver capable and deserving of top status at his position. If he can’t get that with the 49ers, it’ll be fascinating to see where he does it — and what the haul in return will be.