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Deebo Samuel can bounce back in 2023, just don’t expect a repeat of 2021

The conditions for a Deebo comeback tour are excellent.

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

Deebo Samuel clearly holds himself to an extremely high standard. If there was any doubt about that, he erased it with his eyebrow-raising comments on Tuesday.

Samuel was asked to assess his 2022 campaign, and had an extremely blunt response.

“It was awful,” Samuel replied. “In every aspect.”

Elaborating on that initial answer, Samuel said: “Me and Kyle [Shanahan] had a long meeting the other day. We watched tape. We talked about it, we put it behind us.

“Just going through the tape, it was, ‘Look how sluggish and, like, how bad you look on tape. Just reflecting on what happened last offseason, it kind of played a big role, I’ll never put nothing on tape like that again.”

Looking back at last season and assessing the numbers, there’s a temptation to believe Samuel may be being unduly harsh on himself.

An accurate critique?

Despite battling injuries and missing four games, Samuel still averaged 8.8 yards per touch, an average that would have put him eighth among qualifying players. On top of that, according to NextGen Stats, he averaged 3.6 yards of separation (fourth among receivers) and led the NFL with an average of 9 yards after the catch per reception.

Samuel’s separation numbers are in part tied to his average depth of target of 4.3 yards. It’s easy to have separation when you’re constantly catching the ball behind the line of scrimmage.

While Samuel would, had he registered enough touches, have been a top-10 player by yards per touch, his average marked a substantial drop-off for a player who averaged at least 13 in two of his first three seasons.

The advanced metrics tell the story of a player who was far from efficient as a runner or pass-catcher last year. As a receiver, Samuel was 77th among receivers in Football Outsiders DYAR, a measure of total value, and 75th in DVOA, which looks at per-play value.

Running the ball, he was 29th of 33 receivers with at least five rushes in both DYAR and DVOA.

Those numbers are a far cry from 2021. Two seasons ago, Samuel was 13th in DYAR and 21st in DVOA as a receiver. Running the ball, he ranked first in DYAR and 13th in DVOA for wideouts.

His 2021 per-play numbers were not that impressive, partially because of how much San Francisco had to lean on Samuel during their second-half surge. He touched the ball 136 times in the regular season. Only Elijah Mitchell (226) had more touches, with no other player registering 100.

Samuel is unlikely to ever repeat that 2021 campaign, when he and the defense essentially carried the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game. In that season, which followed an injury-hit 2020, he had 1,770 yards from and 14 touchdowns from scrimmage, eight coming on the ground, a single-season record for rushing scores by a receiver.

But, as the 49ers head into 2023, the conditions are excellent for another bounce-back season from Samuel.

Comeback tour potential

The Niners go into the new campaign with the most talent on offense they have had under Shanahan. There is a strong case to be made that, at the skill positions, theirs is the most talented offense in the NFL.

In Brandon Aiyuk, the 49ers have an ascending number one receiver who wins with outstanding route-running and is a threat to make big plays at all three levels of the defense. Tight end George Kittle had 11 touchdowns last year as he developed an outstanding rapport with Brock Purdy, and running back Christian McCaffrey’s arrival in midseason weaponized an attack that ended the year second in weighted DVOA behind only the Chiefs.

The combination of that array of talent, and Shanahan’s unmatched proclivity for maximizing it by getting his weapons in space is a recipe for production for any skill-position player on the 49er offense, and especially one of Samuel’s versatile skill set.

Defenses must account for four top-tier offensive playmakers and contend with Shanahan’s ability to get them all on the field from both 11 personnel and 21 personnel, as well as the threat of him manipulating their rules with pre-snap and at-the-snap motion.

Such motions can be even more impactful with both Samuel and McCaffrey on the field given their respective statuses as the best running receiver and the premier receiving back in the NFL. They can each be motioned in and out of the backfield, and the respect defenses must afford them does not change based on alignment.

Regardless of where they are lined up, they are a threat, and the danger of McCaffrey either running or catching the ball out of the backfield puts substantial strain on linebackers and takes pressure off Samuel to get open.

Even in a down year, Samuel benefited from the huge voids over the middle of the field McCaffrey’s gravity helped create.

McCaffrey’s threat when split out as a receiver can facilitate easier run looks for Samuel by putting him against lighter boxes. With Shanahan adept at stacking the deck further by altering the number count with motion and the 49ers possessing excellent in-space blockers in the likes of Kittle and Kyle Juszczyk, Samuel will still be in a superb spot to thrive on the ground in 2023.

Focal point no more

Shanahan’s avenues to getting Samuel the ball in space have only increased through last season’s addition of McCaffrey. The ‘easy button’ plays will be there consistently, setting Samuel up to improve on last season’s efforts simply by staying healthy.

Should Samuel make good on his vow to work on and improve his route-running, the results of plays in which he is the focal point could be consistently spectacular.

The difference between now and 2021 is that he does not have to be the focal point as often. Samuel was the 49er offense two years ago, no longer is that the case.

Because of Aiyuk’s ascension, Kittle’s apparent mind-meld with Purdy and McCaffrey’s remarkable proficiency for turning seemingly every check down into a big play, the Niners can spread the ball around with greater effectiveness. Additionally, the backfield pairing of McCaffrey and Mitchell – provided they can each stay healthy – lessens the need for San Francisco to lean on Samuel in the run game.

The consequence of the depth the 49ers have in pass-catching and running back options is that they can be more selective in how they use Samuel. Rather than relying on him to provide a spark in the run game, the Niners can pick their spots where they think Samuel carries might be more effective.

Samuel’s YAC upside is a critical feature of his game and the offense, but it doesn’t necessarily have to come on screens called to jump-start the offense.

That YAC can now come more organically on plays where he is lined up as a traditional receiver. Most importantly, the 49ers don’t have to put more wear and tear on his body, they can utilize Samuel more intelligently to keep him healthy and maximize his opportunities to produce game-changing plays.

Seasons in which Samuel touches the ball 98 times, as he did last year, are more likely to become the norm than his 2021. But, in this offense, fewer touches doesn’t necessarily have to mean fewer big plays.

If Samuel complements the surrounding talent and his coach’s play-calling acumen, there’s no reason he can’t generate more efficiency and a stream of splash plays. The environment for a bounce-back is ideal, it’ll just look different from his memorable 2021.