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 running 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 construction — 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 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 Shanahan’s offense? Because as much as Samuel is thought to be a “gadget player” by some, he’s actually a complete receiver capable of winning with any concept you want to put up on the board.
Perhaps 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 far too much on the table. More on that in a minute. For now, let’s look at what makes Samuel so special.
Samuel wins as a runner like no other NFL receiver.
(Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
Samuel has moves like 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.
Extending 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’d 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 align with the somewhat popular opinion that Samuel is more of a target in gimmicky concepts 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 of 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.
How can Trey Lance help?
(Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports)
Lance doesn’t yet have Garoppolo’s command of the nuances of the quarterback position (such as they are in his case), but he also isn’t bumping his head on his own ceiling like Garoppolo frequently is. We have 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 this 43-yard touchdown pass against the Texans in Week 17, Lance hits Samuel on a great vertical pass — this just isn’t the kind of risky velocity throw Garoppolo has preferred to make in his career.
Even when Lance throws late into coverage, Samuel is right there to help him out. Here’s another 26-yard play against the Cardinals in which Lance could have thrown Samuel open, but it didn’t matter, because Samuel did what he does — he used his athleticism to turn a 50-50 ball into a distinct advantage for the offense .
Deebo Samuel is one of the most unique players in the NFL today. But he also has a high-level “boilerplate” array of skills you need to become a top-tier receiver at the NFL level. With a less-cautious quarterback throwing the ball to him, it appears that the NFL is about to find that out.
Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire