One of the most pleasant surprises this season has been the performance from Deebo Samuel. The third-year wideout is among the league leaders in targets, receiving yards, and yards per reception.
Beyond the numbers, Samuel has learned what it takes to become a professional football player. Kyle Shanahan spoke about the strides Deebo has made during his first three years:
“I thought Deebo, as a rookie, he made a lot of strides halfway through the year. We threw him into the battle very early, even Week 1 versus Tampa. He had a lot to learn on the fly. But he got better throughout the year and was playing at a very-high level when we got to the playoffs and the Super Bowl.
His second year was just injury-filled. So, he didn’t get an offseason. So, when he came back, he wasn’t totally ready to play football and he kept getting re-injured. So, the second year was almost like it didn’t even happen.
And this year, I think is what you were hoping to see the second year. He came in very prepared from what he learned his rookie year. He came in ready to go, was in much better football shape, much better on his routes. His stamina’s better and I think that’s why he started off better.”
Samuel has been a reliable target for Jimmy Garoppolo, catching 20 of his 30 targets for 334 yards. Samuel also has four carries on the season, including one in the red zone last week.
Samuel’s four receptions over 20 yards are tied for 11th in the NFL among all receivers. San Francisco has six receptions that have gone for more than 20 yards as a team. He’s not only a consistent target for the 49ers' offense; Deebo has been the most explosive player on that side of the ball, too.
Kyle Shanahan is finding different ways to get Samuel the ball. Shanahan explained how it’s harder to take receivers out of the equation when you can move them around:
“Yeah, you can hand off the ball to a lot of receivers and they’ve got a chance on good looks, but Deebo is a real good running back too. So, even if it’s not a good look he still has a chance to gain a yard or two.
He’s very natural at it and the way his body’s built he can handle it pretty well. So, anytime I think guys can take pass eligibles out of the game fairly easily, if they want to. That’s why it’s good to always have another club in your bag where you can play a different position.”
Samuel is the ultimate “hybrid club” for the Niners. He’s no longer a gimmick receiver that’s limited to jet sweeps and passes like last season, where his average depth of target was 2.2 yards.
As Shanahan noted above, Samuel deserves credit for improving as a route runner. Per Next Gen Stats, Samuel averages 3.2 yards per separation. He’s always been electric with the ball in his hands but learning the nuances as a receiver is an area where Deebo had to improve.
Once the 49ers' offense got rolling Sunday night, it seemed as though Shanahan was fed up and started calling plays for only the players he trusted: Samuel, Kyle Juszczyk, and George Kittle.
Garoppolo described Samuel as a tone-setter:
“Deebo has been huge. He really has. Pass game, run game, blocking he does a great job too. He doesn’t even get noticed for it. He’s come a long way in all those, but above all that, what I really noticed is just his leadership, how he sets the tone for that group.
The receivers, really all the skill positions in general on our offense, he kind of gets everyone going. You need a guy like that, a tone-setter. We’ve got a couple of other guys like that too, but Deebo has really embraced that role this year and I appreciate him for that.”
The 49ers use Samuel as a lead blocker at times. If this were the NBA, his usage rate would be through the roof when you look at everything San Francisco asks of Deebo.
Against Seattle, let’s hope Deebo has more than two targets in the first half. As the team’s “tone-setter,” they should lean on arguably their best player on offense through three games early and often.