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Deebo Samuel’s emergence as a top receiving threat comes at a perfect time

Samuel has been coming into his own the past couple of weeks

Carolina Panthers v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The 49ers drafted Tyshun “Deebo” Samuel with their second-round pick, 36th overall, out of the University of South Carolina in the 2019 NFL Draft. They took him over such names as D.K. Metcalf, Marquise Brown, and Terry McLaurin, two rookies also having fantastic seasons. I don’t think head coach Kyle Shanahan or quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo regret this pick one bit. He’s emerging as a top receiving threat for the 49ers, earning a spot in the franchise history book as the first rookie receiver to grab eight passes and 100 receiving yards in consecutive games.

Recently, Deebo has emerged as the go-to receiving target for Jimmy Garoppolo in the absence of tight George Kittle and receiver Emmanuel Sanders, especially in light of the many issues plaguing the receiver room: the drops, the injuries, lack of a consistent and reliable target. Against the Cardinals on Sunday, Deebo had eight catches for 134 yards. Though he had no touchdowns, with his performance, the 49ers might not have won this game.

Prior to the last two weeks, Shanahan seemed content to mostly use Deebo as a sort of a gadget player on reverses, screens, throwbacks, etc., save for a few downfield throws. However, In the last two games, he has a combined 16 catches for 246 yards on 21 targets. With Sanders’s status up in the air going forward (he exited the game late on Sunday too), expect Deebo to get the lion’s share of the targets among the receiver group.

Through 10 games as a rookie, Deebo has 38 catches for 473 yards and one touchdown and five carries for 37 yards and one touchdown, making him a versatile receiver no matter where or how Shanahan chooses to use him. Deebo excels in a variety of areas, and today we’ll look at his yards after the catch, contested catches, contact after the catch, how fearless he is over the middle, and how versatile he is (usage in the running game).

Yards after catch

One of Deebo’s best attributes is his ability to create yards after the catch. In his senior year of college, it was his single best attribute. Of his 882 receiving yards, 592 came after the catch due to his ability to win off the line of scrimmage, allowing him to get separation against man coverage, and his ability to run through defenders and make them miss tackles against off or zone coverage.

Deebo is a crisp and precise route runner. Here he’s running a dagger route over the middle. The defender is playing off coverage with a seven-yard cushion against the two receiver stack set. Deebo takes off at the snap and drives his vertical stem right at the defender, getting him to turn his hips downfield, expecting a vertical route. After a few steps, Deebo cuts off the defender’s inside hip and across the field.

Deebo isn’t the fastest guy, but where he lacks the speed to elude defenders, he makes up for with tough running ability and making defenders not want to tackle him. In the clip above, Deebo runs through the tackle of Bengals safety Jesse Bates (No. 30), who goes low and aims for his feet.

For someone with Deebo’s strength and power, it’s obvious why Bates went so low to begin with, and knowing he’d likely not bring Deebo down with an arm tackle. According to Pro Football Focus, Deebo has 12 broken tackles this season.

One area where Deebo excelled in college was running quick slants over the middle. His ability to catch anything thrown at him (I know he has six drops this year) serves him well in the quick passing game.

Deebo catches a quick backside slant here off an outside zone RPO against Seahawks defender Tre Flowers (No. 21). Flowers does not get a jam on Deebo to disrupt the route, and Deebo drives him before cutting inside. He makes Flowers and safety Quandre Diggs (No. 37) miss their tackle with a quick bend away from the defenders as they come downhill to meet him in the middle of the field.

Contested catches

While he hasn’t had much of an opportunity to do so, he excels with contested catches when given the opportunity, and he came down with a key catch late in the third quarter against the Cardinals in week 11.

Deebo is running a corner route on Shanahan’s mesh concept called “Flow 6.” Deebo is the 2nd read in the concept, and Garoppolo likely decides pre-snap that he’s going to Deebo based on the coverage (cover 1 single high). Garoppolo had Goodwin open underneath on the shallow cross, but it’s third-and-9.

The ball is underthrown and bounces off the defender’s back and up and over him. Deebo stays stride for stride with it, never taking his eyes off of it, and he snags it out of the air as two defenders in the process are crunching him. Deebo left the game after this for a brief moment, but the 49ers would later score on this drive thanks to his concentration in the face of two defenders.

We got a glimpse into this ability to win contested catches when went up over a Dallas defender in the preseason on this long throw down the sideline from quarterback CJ Beathard.

Contact after catch

In addition to being good at contested catches and getting yards after the catch, he’s also shown that he is not afraid to run through defenders. At 6-foot and 215 pounds, he’s not an easy guy to bring down after the catch.

Catching a deep curl route here against Seattle, Deebo quickly transitions to being a runner and gets upfield. If he isn’t able to run away from defenders, he looks for contact and gets it by lowering his shoulder into the safety, who bounces off him. In fact, it takes multiple defenders rallying to the ball to bring him down because of his strong leg drive and low center of gravity.

Deebo does the same thing here, running a swirl route. He sits down in the zone and catches the pass, quickly transitions upfield, and lowers his shoulder as two Cardinals defenders hit him for the tackle. But he keeps driving his legs, and it once again takes several Cardinals defenders rallying at the ball carrier to bring him down.

Fearless over the middle

After the week 11 win over the Cardinals, cornerback Richard Sherman was asked about what makes Deebo so effective. Sherman simply stated that “He’s fearless.”

Deebo Samuel is fearless. He’ll run through any catch. You get some receivers running across the middle, and they’re looking for who’s going to hit them. Deebo is looking for who he’s going to hit. That’s a much different mentality for most people. It’s almost like you expect him to break the tackle when he catches the football, and it takes a tremendous amount of trust in your quarterback, a tremendous amount of trust in your abilities to be able to play like that because some of the plays, they’re drawn up [with] him running into traffic. He’s running into a safety who’s breaking, and it could be a huge hit, and he’s not wincing, he’s not crunching up. He’s running through it, catching the ball, and keeping going. That’s a fearlessness that can’t be coached and can’t be taught. You either have it, or you don’t.”

He knows he’s going to take a big hit potentially and it doesn’t deter him from going across the middle as he does here on the quick slant. Garoppolo left the pass a bit too much in front of him, but Deebo snags it out of the air, immediately tucks it away, lowers himself, squares up, and meets the Buccaneer’s safety Darian Stewart head-on. The defender bounces off him and loses his helmet. Deebo keeps going.

Deebo is running the deep crossing route from the bottom of the screen. The throw is a bit late as Garoppolo looks to him, but he had to shuffle around before coming to Deebo. Garoppolo’s pocket movement to stay alive and give Deebo chance is equally important here. Still, Deebo snags it out of the air in the face of two defenders within two yards of hitting, and neither one could bring him down on their initial contact.


In college, around a dozen or so of his receptions came on play concept called a “tap pass fly” where he takes the ball running a fly motion behind the line of scrimmage.

The play only counts as a pass because the quarterback pushes the ball forward. But he gained some serious yardage on it and showcased an ability to be a runner out of the backfield.

While Shanahan hasn’t used him in that manner, he has called specific plays to get him the ball on screens and runs. On the running play above, Deebo lines up as the wing-back and takes the handoff on a wing counter run against the Panthers in week eight. The fly motion removes a defender from the box to the play side, and Deebo sprints and hits the crease up the middle for a touchdown run. Linebacker Luke Kuechly was there but could not make a play at the point of attack.


The 49ers have a young core of receivers, two of which aren’t going to play a snap this season (Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd), one that appears to be in the dog house (Dante Pettis), and a couple of others who suffer from a dropped pass problem (Goodwin and Bourne). Deebo does have his share of drops too, but the common theme lately is that it hasn’t deterred Shanahan from scheming plays for him and also hasn’t caused Garoppolo to lose trust in him.

Expect Deebo’s role to grow as the week’s progress toward a playoff push. With Sanders’s limited role in the coming weeks, I have a feeling that we have not even seen the potential of this young receiver, especially with the possibility of Shanahan expanding his role with new wrinkles and plays to get Deebo in space. The astounding thing is he still has room to grow into his role and get even better than he currently is.