The San Francisco 49ers went into the 2018 season with high hopes for their receiving core. The fans anticipated the return of Pierre Garçon, who missed the last eight games due to a neck injury against the Eagles – as well as Marquise Goodwin, who was just 38 yards shy of 1,000 receiving yards.
To add to those vets, the 49ers had some youth with second-year players Kendrick Bourne, Trent Taylor, and draft picks Dante Pettis and Richie James.
What looked to be a loaded wide receiving core quickly swung in the opposite direction. Garçon was shelved after once again playing eight games, this time totaling 24 catches for 286 yards. Goodwin didn’t fare too much better, playing in 11 games and finishing the season with a grand total of 23 catches for less than 400 yards. So, who excelled? The answer is simple: no one. Bourne led all 49ers receivers with a pedestrian 42 catches for 487 yards. That’s not ideal.
Pettis as a rookie made some splash plays and showed his ability to create tons of separation with routes – but also lacked in certain areas of his game. He didn’t play strong. Pettis struggled to fight through contact from aggressive defensive backs, and was underwhelming in traffic and going up for contested catches. Heading into the 2019 offseason, the uncertainty with this group mounted.
After letting Garçon walk, most believed the 49ers wanted to fill that void with a big, tall receiver. I’ve never been one to pick a receiver solely on height alone, I want the total package. And I believe that comes in all sizes.
Kyle Shanahan coaching Deebo Samuel at the 2019 Senior Bowl.
“What’s the total package?” you might ask: hands, has some suddenness, creates separation, variety of releases, plays big and is open even when he’s not open. I look for a certain skill set, not a certain size. Which leads me right to a guy I feel possesses all of that; 49ers 2019 second-round pick, Tyshun “Deebo” Samuel. At 5-foot-11, 214 pounds, he’s certainly not that 6-foot-4 monster 49ers fans called for. When Samuel was selected with the 36th pick overall, the 49ers definitely had their pick of “bigger” receivers. DK Metcalf, AJ Brown, Hakeem Butler, just to name a few. But the 49ers chose Samuel. Why Deebo? The 49ers had the opportunity to coach him at the Senior Bowl. Coming from a South Carolina offense that ran a lot of screens and jet sweeps, this was a chance for Samuel to show he can run NFL routes. And that he did. Flashing dazzling releases, long speed and strong hands in one-on-ones, primarily against fellow second-round draft pick Rock Ya-Sin.
Samuel’s Senior Bowl week forced me to go back and watch his South Carolina film through a different lens. And what I came away with was a receiver that was NFL-ready and jumped all the way up to WR2 on my pre-draft rankings. When the 49ers were up to pick at No. 36, I received several messages asking me who I thought they’d select, and Deebo Samuel was my response. Now, there has been a lot of talking about his 31 yards per catch on slant routes. That number may be inflated by a 68-yard touchdown, which came on the first play against Kentucky in 2017.
Or maybe his catch and run against Florida where he gained 89 yards before being ran down by Gators cornerback C.J. Henderson (who has been timed as fast as 4.35 40, and 10.3 in the 100, so do not be alarmed).
But there are more examples of his great catch-and-run abilities that may have enticed the 49ers staff. The 49ers have had their red-zone struggles and people point directly to the lack of height within their receiver room. My view on it is simple: good receivers find ways to score. At 5-foot-11, Odell Beckham Jr. scored 35 touchdowns his first three seasons in the league. Antonio Brown stands all of 5-foot-10 and has hauled in 59 touchdown passes the last five seasons.
Built like a running back, Samuel plays just as big.
Turning into a running back once the balls is in his hands, he can be seen plowing through defensive backs. But that’s not the only time he uses his strength. In a game against Clemson where Samuel had 10 catches for 210 yards and three touchdowns, there was one play near the goal line that stood out to me most and something I feel the 49ers have been missing within their receiver group.
A tough, gritty do-it-all receiver. Here you see Samuel line up on top of the numbers. Now, I’ve seen him get clean releases and score, but can he score with a defensive back getting hands on him? Here he does. The slant he runs does not move the defensive back, but his strength allows him to not only play through the jam, but catch the ball and drag the defender into the end zone. Something we have are yet to see from current 49ers receivers.
Samuel caught several slants for touchdowns in a variety of ways. But an underrated aspect of scoring for receivers is the ability to work to open areas. On several occasions he showed he can do that.
Enough about Samuel’s slant and red-zone contributions, I want to get into who he is as a well-rounded receiver, and why I feel he can be a “WR1.”
Let’s start with his toughness and ability to catch the ball in traffic with all hands. The 49ers have Pettis, who works great in space, but now they have a receiver who is not only a threat to take the top off of a defense but also get nasty in traffic. Here you see him come back into the picture after running a deep comeback. I love how he works back to the ball and then catches the ball away from his body in traffic.
That shows two things; confidence, and toughness.
Because of the South Carolina offense, I couldn’t find a ton of examples of this, but here are two digs over the middle where you see him catch the ball over the middle and fight for extra yards.
Samuel was routinely able to work so well on underneath routes because he also poses a threat vertically. Against Tennessee, being guarded by current 49ers cornerback Emmanuel Moseley, he used best release by pressing lane one, attacking Moseley’s leverage and then coming back lane three, forcing Moseley to speed turn, and then attacking the ball at its highest point with strong hands.
Here he beats the Tennessee corner off the line, and shows that toughness and relentlessness to haul in the pass with one hand while fighting off the defender.
Another big trait with Samuel is, even when he’s not open, he’s still open. Several times throughout his South Carolina tenure, quarterbacks threw the ball up to him, giving him a chance. The 49ers need that player that refuses to lose.
Watch how he finishes this play. This is the type of attitude the 49ers need in the receiver room.
Against North Carolina State, Samuel hauled in another deep one-hander, this time for 39 yards and a touchdown.
South Carolina’s offense didn’t call for a ton of deep shots to Samuel, but when they were dialed up, he delivered.
One thing they did with Samuel on several occasions are the infamous “Jet Sweeps”. The Jet sweep can be used for two things: 1. A way to just get the ball in the hands of your playmaker on offense (this is how Samuel can lead the 49ers in touches). As a sophomore for the Gamecocks, Samuel had six touchdowns on the ground. His 215-pound frame allows him to take on defenders and dish out punishment. Here are a few runs highlighting his ability to get the ball behind the line of scrimmage and turn into a running back.
I started this write up asking, “Why Deebo?”
The answer was long and full of explosive plays and versatility. In short, Deebo Samuel was the most well-rounded receiver in the draft in terms of: releases, routes, catch-in-traffic, play strength, run after catch and just being a pure dog. What he lacks in height he makes up in heart. He’s exactly what the 49ers needed alongside second-year WR Dante Pettis.
This is a toy I’m sure Kyle Shanahan is excited about. Offensive Rookie of the Year? We shall see.
Media courtesy South Carolina Athletics