Trends develop fast in the NFL. This time last year, Deebo Samuel was just a second-round rookie and virtual afterthought. He was listed as a third-string WR on the Niners’ first preseason depth chart and checked it at no. 15 on NFL.com’s 2019 fantasy rookie rankings — behind guys like JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Andy Isabella. That seemed about right in the moment, but fast-forward a year, and Samuel’s standing among NFL receivers looks much different. After developing into an integral piece of the Niners offense and showcasing his skills as a ballcarrier and after-the-catch star, Samuel became a buzzworthy topic this offseason. As teams dug through a historically deep receiver draft class, analysts like NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah tried to determine who could be “The Next Deebo Samuel.”
Included in that group was Arizona State wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who was a yards-after-catch machine during his days in Tempe. Aiyuk averaged 9.9 YAC during his final college season, the best mark in the 2020 class. And the Samuel comparisons looked even more apt when none other than the 49ers traded up to take Aiyuk with the 25th pick.
John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan clearly have a type at wide receiver. Along with Samuel and Aiyuk, San Francisco also has receiver-running back hybrid Jalen Hurd, whom the team took in the third round of the 2019 draft. Aiyuk and Hurd will likely play outsize roles this season following the news that Samuel will be out 12 to 16 weeks with a Jones fracture he suffered while working out with teammates in Tennessee. But Samuel’s injury doesn’t dampen his overall influence. He may not be the first multifaceted receiver to have success in the NFL, but he’s the one who’s fresh in everyone’s minds. Now, as other franchises try to develop “their version of Deebo Samuel,” it’s worth asking what that really means—and how teams can learn from the way San Francisco both scouts and deploys its receivers.
Before digging into the X’s and O’s, let’s start by looking at some traits that many of these gadget receivers have in common. First, they’re typically on the shorter side. Samuel measured just over 5-foot-11 at the combine. The Giants’ Golden Tate—long considered one of the best YAC receivers in the NFL—stands 5-foot-10. One of Tate’s closest physical comps is Texans receiver Randall Cobb, who lined up in the backfield often early in his career and created mismatches in the middle of the field.
Then there’s the fact that nearly all of the NFL receivers who consistently carried the ball in 2019 also had experience as a kick returner in college. Samuel returned 23 kicks during his final college season at South Carolina. Carolina’s Curtis Samuel (who led the NFL with 19 WR carries last season) returned 21 kicks during his first two years at Ohio State. And Cordarrelle Patterson, who played 202 offensive snaps for the Bears last season and carried the ball 17 times, also doubles as Chicago’s primary kick returner.
Patterson and Curtis Samuel are useful examples of how teams have showcased this type of receiver in the past—and how that approach has often limited their impact. Deebo Samuel averaged 11.4 yards per carry last season, but that level of success is rare in the NFL. Wide receiver touches are typically considered more explosive than running back carries, but the numbers don’t really bear that out. According to Pro Football Focus, teams averaged negative-0.118 expected points added per WR rush last season, which is equal to the EPA average on all runs—by any position—leaguewide. Wide receiver screens weren’t much better, averaging just negative-0.114 EPA per play.
The idea behind using a wideout as both a ballcarrier and YAC receiver—and the often underwhelming impact of that usage—isn’t new. In 2011, the Vikings handed the ball to wide receiver Percy Harvin a staggering 52 times. Harvin averaged a respectable 6.6 yards per carry on those runs, but while watching tape from that season, it’s clear that the Vikings were hampered by the same issues that still confound offenses today. Minnesota viewed Harvin as a true hybrid player, the sort who could just as easily line up at running back as he could at wide receiver. The Vikings routinely positioned Harvin in the backfield and slammed him between the tackles.
That may seem like a novel strategy, but it doesn’t accomplish much. There’s no deception involved in dropping a receiver in the backfield and handing the ball off, and the returns on those plays are often limited. Just ask Patterson, who in Week 1 last season was dropped for a 2-yard loss on arguably the most embarrassing rushing play the league saw all year. When the NFL’s football operations team put on its “Big Data Bowl” this spring, that Patterson run was used as an example of a play designed to fail.
It’s easy to pick on the Bears for that face-plant, but that play illustrates how these concepts often go awry. When WR carries or short, designed throws are treated as tacked-on tricks removed from the larger offensive methodology, they’re rarely useful. Even if the occasional end-around goes for a 10-yard gain, most teams won’t be able to create consistent chunk plays like the Niners did with Samuel last season.
What sets the 49ers apart, then, is how natural their concepts feel within the rhythm of the offense. Other teams (most notably, the Rams) have used running back carries as a way to lend credence to jet motion and other modes of deception, but even those plays seem more like an obligation than a focused design. For Shanahan and the Niners, though, these concepts are part of their big-play DNA.
Take this 30-yard touchdown run by Samuel in Week 17. The Niners used this concept and ones similar to it several times during the stretch run of the 2019 season. At the snap, this play looks like one of the new gap runs that San Francisco used often last year. The left guard pulls, and fullback Kyle Juszczyk—lined up as an H-back on this play—follows him down the line of scrimmage. With all the action moving to the defense’s left, the Seahawks’ (incredibly savvy) linebackers flow hard in that direction. Then Jimmy Garoppolo flips the ball to Samuel, who’s heading to the opposite side, and the result is a touchdown.
The movement created by the initial fake looks a lot like the space Shanahan produces via play-action passes. And when the first few steps of two plays look identical, it becomes impossible for the defense to decipher the end result. For most offenses, counters like the Samuel TD have limited impacts because the teams don’t adhere to the underlying principles that create the deception. It’s the same reason that teams that use play-action passes without connecting them to their runs don’t have as much success. The Niners dominate with their counters only because they’re fully committed to the philosophy that makes them possible.
San Francisco’s varied offensive strategy provides the perfect foundation for Samuel’s counterpunches, and identifies the teams that may be able to easily adopt similar designs. Sometimes, it’s as simple as stealing an individual concept, which the Cardinals did last season when they used the Niners’ peelback play for a 28-yard gain in Week 15—a week after San Francisco ran it with Samuel for the first time. Any team can steal a concept or two from San Francisco’s playbook, but the teams best equipped to adopt those ideas are the ones that are also dedicated to the outside-zone running game that defines the Niners offense.
The league is currently filled with play-callers who’ve either worked for Shanahan or adopted a version of the system that his father, Mike Shanahan, and current Vikings offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak developed in the 1990s. The Packers, Titans, Browns, Vikings, Rams, and Bengals share a significant amount of that DNA, and I’d expect several of those teams to utilize some version of these counters this season. Titans wideout A.J. Brown is already one of the best YAC receivers in the league (league-leading 8.9 YAC average last season) and seems like a perfect fit for some of those designs. Browns slot man Jarvis Landry averaged 5.3 YAC last season and could do plenty of damage with the ball in his hands.
It’s impossible to know just how far teams will go in mimicking the Niners’ game plan with Samuel, but it’s all but certain that we’ll see more offenses try to incorporate similar concepts in 2020. Coaches are always chasing the latest offensive trend, and this year, that might just be the Niners’ wide receiver blueprint.