The San Francisco 49ers suffered a significant setback in their preparations for the 2020 season as it was announced wide receiver Deebo Samuel would require surgery on a Jones fracture in his foot, raising questions about an inexperienced receiving corps' ability to fill the void.
Samuel declared the subsequent surgery a success and indicated he would back in 10 weeks, putting him on schedule to return in August and in time for the start of the new campaign.
That cannot, however, be considered a concrete timeline. The fracture is the same injury that derailed Trent Taylor's progress after a promising 2017 season as he suffered multiple complications following the surgery. Former New York Giants star Hakeem Nicks was never the same player after rushing back from his operation on the same injury in 2012 and then injuring his knee.
By contrast, Michael Crabtree quickly recovered in the same situation in 2011 and led the 49ers in receiving yards in the first year under Jim Harbaugh.
While the timeline may not be set in stone, what is clear is how valuable Samuel is to the San Francisco offense.
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Samuel enjoyed an incredible rookie year after being selected in the second round in 2019. He finished with 961 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns in the regular season. In Super Bowl LIV, he set a Super Bowl record for rushing yards by a wide receiver with 53.
Working largely from the slot, Samuel averaged 8.5 yards after the catch per reception, according to the NFL's NextGen Stats, only the Tennessee Titans' A.J. Brown (8.8) averaged more.
His frightening combination of acceleration, elusiveness, and power allowed him to excel in the open field and was key to the impact he had on screens and on reverses and designed hand-offs out of the backfield.
News of Samuel's injury has naturally led to talk of the Niners bringing another receiver into the mix, with the depth chart at a position full of question-marks beyond the former South Carolina star.
Speaking on 95.7 The Game, NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger suggested the Niners should put in a call to Antonio Brown as he aims to break back into the league following his well-documented off-field troubles.
"Well he's been working out with Deion Sanders this whole offseason and he hasn't been on Twitter, hasn't been on social media but quietly working out with Deion. There's no question he wants to come back and play. Now, his debut in Oakland was a disaster. Would it be different under Kyle Shanahan, Jimmy Garoppolo, John Lynch, would he be a professional? Would he be a great team player?
I would make the phone call. He was the league's best receiver before he just sort of collapsed and fell out of favor. I would make the phone call and then you've gotta decide. Is this a guy that you want in your locker room, that your locker room can handle? Or is somebody that you're better off just not touching? But I think you have to make the phone call and see where he's at."
Former 49ers safety Donte Whitner on 95.7 The Game echoed the same, saying, "I would grab him now, I'm telling you."
Such a move by the 49ers appears unlikely, and while their receiving corps lacks proven playmakers, it features a platoon of players that have the skill sets to potentially replace Samuel should he miss time.
Samuel did not exclusively line up in the slot as a rookie but did most of his damage as a receiver when aligned in that spot. According to RotoWire, Samuel lined up in the slot on 390 (45.8%) of his 852 plays, making 43 receptions for 629 yards and three touchdowns on those snaps.
Versatility is the calling card of the Niners receiving corps, the bulk of which is comfortable playing in the slot.
Trent Taylor would be the most obvious candidate to pick up the slack in the slot in a scenario where Samuel misses games, having developed an exciting rapport with Jimmy Garoppolo in 2017. There is, however, no guarantee he can return to his form of two years ago and others may be required to step up if there is no sign of him rediscovering his best in training camp.
First-round pick Brandon Aiyuk can operate from any receiving position across the formation while fellow rookie Jauan Jennings and last year's third-round pick Jalen Hurd are expected to serve as 'big slots,' with their size likely to create natural mismatches against nickel corners and safeties.
It is a role in which the latter should flourish with quickness and change-of-direction ability that is outstanding for a man of his 6'5" and 230-pound frame. Jennings, meanwhile, may not have the same quick-twitch athleticism as Samuel, but he arguably runs with superior toughness, making him a threat to excel after the catch if he makes the team as a seventh-round pick.
Veteran Travis Benjamin could provide a deep threat from the slot with experience of the Kyle Shanahan offense, with a wrist injury to Richie James perhaps improving his prospects of earning a spot on the 53.
The biggest unknown, though, is Dante Pettis, whose roster spot is legitimately under threat heading into training camp.
A 2018 second-round pick who shone down the stretch of his rookie year, Pettis could not escape Kyle Shanahan's doghouse last season but can excel playing from the boundary and in the slot. He has previously burned opposing cornerbacks from both positions with his combination of foot speed and route-running craft, and he is fast enough to make significant gains in the open field.
Pettis' third season in the NFL is a make-or-break one. If Samuel looks like missing time, there will be an even greater onus on Pettis to put last year behind him and live up to his undoubted potential. Him doing that would significantly soften the blow of any potential Samuel absence.
The added dimension Samuel provides the 49ers out of the backfield was pivotal to the offense's success last season, but it may be the easiest thing for San Francisco to replace.
Richie James is a potential candidate to be utilized in such a way because of the speed he has demonstrated in sparing offensive snaps and on special teams.
His injury is a dent to the former seventh-round pick's hopes of being a more significant part of the offense, particularly with the potential upside Aiyuk and Hurd offer as ball-carriers out of the backfield.
To expect Aiyuk, who was not used as a rusher at Arizona State, to excel in that role is a projection based on his similarities to Samuel as a runner. Aiyuk's collegiate tape suggests a player who has another gear in his locker compared to Samuel, while his vision and ability to evade defenders has come to the fore in his often-spectacular efforts in the return game.
No such projection is needed for Hurd, the ex-Tennessee running back who was frequently used on designed hand-offs and as a goal-line back at Baylor despite his transition to wide receiver.
A nightmare to slow down when he builds a head of steam, Hurd is an intelligent runner who takes advantage of his change-of-direction skills to set up his cuts.
Had he not suffered a back injury that cost him his 2019 season, Hurd would surely already have nailed down a concrete role in the 49er rushing attack. He was expected to take on such responsibilities alongside Samuel this year, but the burden will fall more heavily on his shoulders if his fellow second-year receiver is not ready in time for the season.
Without Samuel, the Niners receiving depth chart may look unimpressive. However, as a platoon, they have the attributes to make up for his possible absence.
A franchise pressed against the salary cap would ideally prefer to avoid committing more capital, however small, on a gamble at receiver. Should Samuel's injury linger into the season, the 49ers will likely need the bets they took on other wideouts in the draft to start paying dividends.
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