Training camp begins for the 49ers in two weeks. Of course, there will be questions about Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance’s arm fatigue, but will Deebo Samuel have a new contract by then? I doubt he steps onto the field without a new deal.
ESPN polled NFL executives to find the top 10 players at each position. Wide receivers were today, and Deebo came in at 9th on the list:
Highest ranking: 7 | Lowest ranking: Out of top 10
Age: 26 | Last year’s ranking: Unranked
Samuel’s hybrid receiver/running back role complicated his voting for some evaluators.
“As a pure WR, I’m not sure where to put him,” an NFL personnel director said. “As an offensive skill player, he’s elite and belongs in there.”
Samuel’s increased workload at tailback in 2021 has been a prime topic this offseason, as Samuel requested a trade from the 49ers. The 2019 second-rounder rushed 59 times in the regular season and another 27 times in the playoffs, many of which were between the tackles. Becoming more of a full-time receiver can preserve Samuel’s long-term health.
Either way, Samuel is among the game’s best with the ball in his hands, averaging 10.0 yards after catch per reception, tops in the league among receivers. Nearly 30% of his catches last season gained at least 20 yards, and his 77 catches for 1,405 yards remind that he’s more than capable as a pass-catcher.
Some voters say he’s not a refined route-runner like others on this list. But there’s one problem with that line of thinking.
“I don’t think he’s ever had to sit and do routes exclusively because he’s always been so talented that every offense gets him the ball quickly and takes the full route tree off the table a little bit,” an AFC scout said. “He’s like Tyreek [Hill] in that, get him the ball, even as a handoff, and can be successful. So maybe he can’t run as many routes as Keenan Allen or Justin Jefferson. But the balance is healthy because he’s so good. And he can run routes and break you down. He has to be schemed up a little bit, but not to the point where he can’t be a No. 1.”
When a personnel director is confused about Samuel’s skills as a true receiver, you know they’re working off recency bias. Before Deebo moved to part-time running back, he was among the league leaders in wide receiver stats.
He had games in the first half of 189, 93, 156, 100, and 171 receiving yards in the first half of the season. That’s the definition of elite production.
When you think about Samuel, screens and quick passes come to mind, but you ignore how he beats press coverage or finds ways to cross the defender's face to create separation.
Here’s the top 10: