If Deebo Samuel was a premium pick in your fantasy football league, prepare to be disappointed.
Samuel signed a three-year contract extension this offseason worth $58.1 million in guarantees, so he’s a key weapon for the 49ers. But he’s due for a significant statistical drop from last season’s 77 receptions for 1,405 yards and six touchdowns to go along with 365 yards rushing and eight touchdowns.
That’s not good if Samuel was your first-round pick. But fantasy football isn’t real football and the bottom line is with Deebo doing less, it will enable 49ers coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan to do more.
All credit to Shanahan for going all-in on Samuel by necessity last season, and to Samuel for doing more than his share in helping tow the 49ers and quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to the NFC Championship game and within a dropped interception of the Super Bowl.
Yet Shanahan understands that what the 49ers did last season with Samuel isn’t sustainable. He’s got a new quarterback in Trey Lance as well as new weapons in slot receiver Ray-Ray McCloud and speed threat Danny Gray. They join an existing skill position corps of wide receivers Brandon Aiyuk, Jauan Jennings, tight end George Kittle and a deeper group of running backs behind oft-injured Elijah Mitchell.
No one has said much about Samuel’s offseason trade request. It will continue that way since both parties came to an agreement. One of the tricky things about contract negotiation is that players want to get paid for what they accomplish and teams want to compensate based on what they believe is coming in the future.
The 49ers believe Samuel’s big 2021 was a statistical outlier. He won’t be asked to carry that kind of burden again. If early contract proposals were underwhelming based on 2022 projections, you could see where the Samuel camp would be less than thrilled.
Having less imposing numbers doesn’t diminish Samuel’s importance. He’s still a big rig headed down a steep grade, avoiding the emergency ramp and challenging all comers. Samuel did what he did in 2021 even though there was little mystery about who was getting the ball. This year, Shanahan has more options and can get Samuel in favorable matchups since other offensive players have to be considered
Among the factors in the de-emphasis of Deebo:
The ascension of Aiyuk
Unless the offseason and training camp were a mirage, Aiyuk has joined Samuel as Option No. 1 among wide receivers. Aiyuk spent time building a rapport with Lance both on the field and personally in Southern California in the offseason as well as in Santa Clara. He was the 49ers’ most outstanding player in training camp, having responded to Shanahan’s tough-love approach a year ago.
While Aiyuk and Lance were bonding, Samuel was exercising leverage and awaiting his contract extension. He’s got time to make that up with Lance in terms of on-field chemistry. Lance and Samuel have been doing that with post-practice throwing sessions and had more of a connection in Minnesota during joint practices. Aiyuk, health permitting, should be good for more than the 56 catches, 826 yards and five touchdowns he had in 2021. The more plays Aiyuk makes, the more it cuts into Samuel’s numbers.
Trey to Danny Gray ‼️
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) August 13, 2022
Other pass-catchers have chance to step up
Jennings got on Shanahan’s nerves the last two years by easing into things before coming on about four weeks into the season. Shanahan said it’s been different this year, with Jennings putting the pedal to the metal early in camp. He provides a jump-and-catch physical option, usually from the slot, to get tough first downs and red zone plays.
McCloud offers a smaller, waterbug presence in the slot and has broken a number of big plays. Playing in the dink-and-dunk Pittsburgh offense last year, McCloud had 39 receptions but only 277 yards, averaging just 7.1 yards per catch. Hard to imagine he won’t get to 10.0 or more in the 49ers’ system based on visual evidence gathered during practices.
As for Gray, the third-round draft pick and deep threat who caught a 76-yard TD from Lance against Green Bay, it’s impossible to predict his contribution. Shanahan has buried more than a few wideouts on the weekly inactive list. Even if Gray’s playing time is limited, he looks like someone who could gain 300 yards on 15 receptions with a couple of long-distance strikes.
There’s also still Kittle, the tight end who loves to block in the running game has also averaged five receptions per game over his career. If he can stay healthy, he’ll receive targets that had to go to Samuel last year.
Shanahan will always commit to rushing yards and attempts. The cupboard was mostly bare in 2021 when Mitchell was hurt (he missed six games with shoulder, knee and concussion issues), hence the need for Samuel to be a ball carrier down the stretch.
Mitchell has recovered from a hamstring strain and is expected to be ready for the opener. Jeff Wilson Jr., hurt last season, looks as if he’s returned to form. The 49ers also brought in another third-round pick in Ty Davis-Price out of LSU, a 225-pound power back and undrafted free agent Jordan Mason flashed in the preseason.
Then of course there’s Lance, who could rush for 500-plus yards on broken plays and the occasional designed run. Those designed runs could also include Samuel as an option — giving defenders the dilemma of taking one or the other.
If the 49ers are taking it on the chin again in terms of injuries or Garoppolo is forced into action, they could always go back to Samuel as the do-everything rusher and receiver he was a year ago. That’s not the plan. The hope is Samuel will do less with Lance operating as the centerpiece and surrounding talent that will make the offense better and less predictable.
Good for the 49ers and good for Samuel’s longevity, but not so good if you picked Deebo in the first round of your fantasy draft.
Contributed by local news sources