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NFL Draft

Deebo Samuel Could See Major Role In 49ers’ Offense

  • The Draft Network
  • May 21, 2021
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As the peak months of the NFL offseason approach, they’ll be plenty of stories about rookies making their debuts and who will have the biggest impact on their respective teams. 

There are also a handful of other players who, while not first-year hopefuls, might be forgotten due to limiting or no playing time in the previous season for one reason or another. The player I want to highlight, in an effort you don’t forget about him is San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel.

As a rookie, in 2019, Samuel caught 57 passes for over 800 receiving yards and three receiving touchdowns while rushing for an additional 159 yards and three rushing touchdowns. After that encouraging first year, Samuel suffered a broken foot during the offseason before his sophomore season even began; that foot injury lingered into the regular season, and that, as well as hamstring issues, caused him to miss nine games. Such a season has caused people to treat Samuel as an afterthought going into 2021; though his time on the field in 2020 was limited, the 49ers’ current situation could propel Samuel into a big-time breakout season for 2021.

NFL Next Gen Stats (NGS) is a fun way to observe a player in a different light than just common statistics can. It can, at times, bring unique context to how and why players are successful. In our case here, it can also be used to predict future numbers based on trends and the context of limited stats.

One stat NGS keeps track of is expected yards after catch and yards after catch above expectation; xYAC is “the expected yards after the catch, based on numerous factors using tracking data such as how open the receiver is, how fast they’re traveling, how many defenders/blockers are in space.” Samuel averaged the highest number in this category of any player in the NFL at 7.8. NGS’s +/- category within YAC is “a receiver’s YAC compared to their expected YAC.” To no surprise, Samuel also averaged the highest in this category with 4.4.

All of that data says that when the 49ers got the ball in Samuel’s hands, he was able to make magic in the open field consistently more than any other player in the NFL. Now, some added context: Samuel saw the eighth-most cushion yards, defined as “the distance (in yards) measured between a wide receiver/tight end and the defender they’re lined up against at the time of snap on all targets” at 7.8 yards of cushion. Samuel also had the highest average of separation at the catch point with an average of 4.6 yards between him and the closest defender; they are easy catches, but lots of yards after the catch with them.

Brandon Aiyuk led the 49ers in receiving production last year during his rookie season due to the injuries to both Samuel and tight end George Kittle. But as it appears the Niners are going to start their 2021 third-overall pick quarterback Trey Lance at some point in the first half of the season, Samuel could have a major role in easing Lance into action. 

Samuel’s average depth of target for 2020 was just 2.2, which is somewhat shocking to see it that low, but his consistent production after the catch shows you that it wasn’t due to his inability to win as a receiver; rather it was having such a good return while keeping offense as simple as possible. Kittle will surely also be a major benefactor of a young quarterback. His playmaking ability at the position makes him a natural target early in possessions. If he’s fully healthy, Samuel could be Lance’s new best friend. As Lance acclimates to NFL speed, head coach Kyle Shanahan will want to build the young quarterback’s confidence with long drives and successful short throws before he really starts to open things up. Samuel saw 81 targets in 15 games his rookie season, and while he only saw 44 targets last year, his targets-per-game average went up almost a whole target from 5.4 to 6.28. This was all while dealing with lingering injuries.

Shanahan’s offense is going to run the ball a lot. They were a top-15 team in 2020 when it came to rushing attempts, and the second-best team across the league when health was more on their side and their offense was going according to plan. When the 49ers pass the ball this season, especially with a rookie signal-caller, they’ll want to keep things simple there too—at least to start. If 2020 was any indication, Samuel will likely be in for his first triple-digit target season, and perhaps even a triple-digit reception season in 2021.

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