Last month John Lynch told everyone that Deebo Samuel was a “foundational piece” of the 49ers and that the team had already budgeted for his contract.
On today’s Gold Standard podcast, Levin Black and I wondered if Deebo’s value to the 49ers would still be as high as it is now with Trey Lance under center rather than Jimmy Garoppolo.
Clearly, Deebo Samuel’s stock has never been higher. He is coming off career highs in every major statistical category, and he even added running the ball out of the backfield to his impressive array of skills. Since the merger, Samuel became the first wide receiver to lead his team in rushing touchdowns.
His ability to run with the ball in his hands matched up perfectly with Jimmy Garoppolo’s penchant for short passes to produce one of the most impressive offensive seasons in recent years.
Will that change once Trey Lance officially becomes the starting quarterback?
A common complaint about Jimmy is that he primarily completes short and intermediate passes between the hash marks. While sometimes frustrating to watch as a fan, that combination put Samuel in a position to maximize his greatest skill, yards after the catch.
Deebo led the league in yards per reception at 18.25 while being tied for 47th in the average length of reception (eight yards). Deebo averaged a ridiculous 10 yards after the catch in 2021. The next-closest receiver to him was Rondale Moore at 8.1 YAC, but unlike Deebo, his average length of reception was -.06 yards.
On the other hand, Trey Lance pushes the ball further down the field. While his sample size was limited to just 10 quarters last year, there’s already a marked difference in the offense when Lance is in control. In those two-plus starts, Lance averaged 9.3 intended air yards per attempt, while Garoppolo sat at 7.5. His strengths may not match up with Deebo Samuel’s strengths as seamlessly as Jimmy Garoppolo’s did.
Pushing the ball further down the field requires receivers to run crisp routes, separate from defenders, and pluck the ball out of the air. Those aren’t Samuel’s strengths right now. According to Pro Football Reference, he was credited with ten drops last year. Those attributes seem to match up better with the game of the receiver opposite of Samuel on the field, Brandon Aiyuk.
That said, that’s a hard call to make based on just ten quarters of evidence to work with. Last season certainly didn’t tell us anything definitive as to Aiyuk vs. Deebo with Trey as the starter. Last year, in Lance’s two starts, Brandon Aiyuk caught six total passes for 126 yards. Deebo Samuel also caught six passes in those games for 121 yards.
To be clear: none of this is to say that Deebo won’t or can’t be successful under Trey Lance. Kyle Shanahan will always be able to design plays that get the ball into the hands of his best players quickly and easily. The question, at a time when the 49ers are acutely assessing Samuel’s value due to contract negotiations, is whether Deebo will ever be as productive with the 49ers in the future as he was last season.