Analysis

Deebo’s Breakthrough: A Lesson in Versatility

Deebo's Breakthrough: A Lesson in Versatility

The NFL has seen a strong wave of young talented wide receivers being drafted the past couple seasons. Players like Justin Jefferson, Ceedee Lamb, AJ Brown and DK Metcalf have all shown promising young careers. All of these players have different body types, abilities and skills that allows them to excel at the professional level. Deebo Samuel is definitely one of these top young receivers, except he is in a separate category that takes into consideration his unique skill set for the NFL level. It is rare that a player performs at such a high level across multiple positions in today’s league. Samuel is one of a kind weapon that gives NFL defenses a unique style of headache. 

In order to appreciate the rise of a young star, one must look at what adversity they went through to get to this point. Samuel was selected by the 49ers with the 36th pick in the 2019 NFL draft. Entering the league he was looked at as a thicker receiver who is physical with the ball in his hands. He started off his career with a respectable rookie season that totaled 800 yards on 57 receptions in 15 games. Samuel was just scratching the surface of his NFL career until an offseason foot fracture held him out for most of the 2020 season. He was never able to get into a rhythm that year which limited his sophomore season growth. Now in the 2021 season, the league is beginning to see just how good of a player he is when healthy.

A big part of what makes Samuel such an interesting player is his positional versatility. He has seen plenty of snaps as a typical receiver out wide and in the slot, but Samuel has also been able to make an impact across the offense with the 49ers expanding his role to include snaps at running back and even tight end at times. 

In the last 5 games, Samuel has seen 37 snaps as a back in the backfield and carried the ball 27 times. He has exceeded 8.0 yards per carry and has 5 rushing touchdowns along with 1 receiving touchdown in this span. This Swiss army knife kind of versatility makes it difficult for opposing defenses to identify him as a receiver or running back when deciding on personnel groupings. Defensive plays are usually called to either counter personnel matchups or based on the down and distance. This unique circumstance can throw off a defensive game plan if not accounted for thoroughly. Samuel’s incredibly high ceiling as a receiver is threatening, but his ability to lineup in the back field can get defenses in bad personnel matchups. 

We asked former NFL Head Coach and 33rd Team Insider Wade Phillips how he would describe Samuel. He said “Samuel shows great run after the catch ability as wide receiver and they use this trait on jet sweeps and quick screens. His vision, burst and physicality are what translate to his carries out of the backfield.” Coach Phillips emphasized the difficulty of defending against teams that get the ball in the hands of their playmakers consistently, and Samuel has shown he can be highly effective at most skill positions. 

The primary concepts the 49ers run Samuel out of are outside zone and pull lead in 11 or 21 personnel. The 21 personnel grouping the 49ers have developed with Samuel as the running back is a unique scheme that uses one or both backs as lead blockers and lines up or motions Samuel into the backfield.

When in the huddle, this type of offensive personnel hints that the defense should play in either base or nickel. Once the formation with Samuel in the backfield is presented, defenses need to adjust for it technically being 31 personnel, which requires a different front call or personnel package. Samuel’s ability to carry the ball allows the 49ers to secretly stack the box with blockers without hinting to defenses what is coming before displaying their formation. This opens up an arsenal of plays for Kyle Shanahan’s offense to artificially create mismatches against the defense.

Former NFL Head Coach Chris Palmer gave a lot of credit to the 49ers’ coaching staff for Samuel’s breakthrough this year. He stated that “San Francisco has done a great job at utilizing his speed, strength, and quickness which allows him to naturally make plays.” He emphasized the mismatch problem the 49ers create when putting Samuel in the back field. A lot of teams come out in nickel against 21 personnel, and placing Samuel at running back can throw off assignment keys for linebackers and safeties. 

The impact Samuel has on the 49ers offense is unique in the fact that he brings a physical and explosiveness presence as a wide receiver to both the passing and rushing game. The last 4 games that Samuel has been available in the San Francisco rushing attack, they are 4-0 and have averaged over 30 points offensively.  This type of hybrid player has been seen before in the NFL, although possibly not to the caliber of receiver Samuel is.

Combining a player with this versatility into Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme opens up a different world of problems for opposing defenses. Samuel’s impact has sparked the 49ers offense and presented a new style of weapon the league will have to adapt to.

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