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Deebo Samuel named the Niners ‘make or break’ player for 2023

Bleacher Report believes the 49ers must get the ‘21 version of Samuel if the 49ers are to overtake the Eagles this year

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Bleacher Report’s Gary Davenport went through each team to name one player who will make or break each team, and listed Deebo Samuel for the 49ers. There was a stark contrast in Samuel’s production during the past two seasons.

Deebo was otherworldly in 2021, when he carried an offense that would have been average had Samuel not turned routine underneath passes into explosive plays. The Niners rewarded their wideback with a hefty extension after his All-Pro season.

That meant expectations heading into 2022 were going to be impossible for anyone to achieve. Davenport explains part of the reason Samuel’s numbers nosedived year over year:

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel is the biggest name on this list. Two years ago, Samuel was a force, topping 1,700 total yards and finding the end zone 14 times. But while the Niners made it back to the NFC Championship Game in 2022, Samuel’s productivity plummeted.

Partly, that was a matter of injuries—Samuel missed four games. But between the arrival of running back Christian McCaffrey and the ascension of wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, Samuel’s role in the offense changed drastically. His yards per catch fell from 18.2 in 2021 to 11.3 in 2022. His yards per target free-fell from 11.6 to 6.7. His average depth of target was nearly cut in half—from 8.4 two years ago to 4.3.

Samuel went from being a dangerous two-way threat who was a focal point of the offense to a guy getting five-yard dump-offs.

Per the team’s website, Samuel said that he’s more concerned with being a leader and a teammate than his statistical production.

“I want to leave a legacy on the field as a guy that worked hard,” Samuel said, “just put his body on the line week in and week out for his team and was a great teammate.”

The thing is though, if the 49ers are going to surpass the Eagles and make it to Las Vegas and Super Bowl LVIII, they need the 2021 Samuel. They need that dual-threat capability. The Niners need that and McCaffrey and Aiyuk catching passes down the field and George Kittle doing damage over the middle.

They need an offense that even Philly’s vaunted defense just doesn’t have an answer for. One with too many formidable possibilities to defend.

You can’t help but appreciate Deebo’s mindset when he speaks about leaving a legacy rather than filling up the box score.

His yards per reception slipped by nearly seven yards a catch. It’s important to point out how many unsustainable plays Samuel had in 2021. Instead of breaking four tackles on one play, he only broke two last year. That doesn’t mean Deebo mailed it in after his extension.

Deebo averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season. He averaged 6.2 on 18 more carries in 2021 with five more touchdowns. If you were to point out that a player averaged a first down rate 19 percent of the time when you handed them the ball, you’d be thrilled. That number doesn’t look as good when said player averaged 37 percent the year before.

You know how many running backs averaged 37 percent last year? 30? Zero. There were none. What Samuel did in 2021 was special, and is unlikely to be replicated again.

It’s not fair to say if Deebo doesn’t revert to his All-Pro, take a screen pass 83 yards to save the day self, the 49ers won’t stack up against the Eagles. Samuel’s health is paramount, as he sets the tone with his style of play and can bail out the offense with his big play ability.

The 49ers have a plethora of weapons to pick from, putting the onus on Kyle Shanahan to figure out what the best way to get and keep a talent like Samuel involved.