The 49ers’ identity has become inseparable from Samuel; he is the piece with which Kyle Shanahan can dictate the pace and style of the game, creating mismatches at will. How can the 49ers possibly replace him?
Last week, Samuel became the first wide receiver in NFL history and just the third player ever — along with 49ers legend Roger Craig and Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk — to have 1,000 receiving yards, 5 receiving touchdowns and 5 rushing touchdowns in a single season.
His emergence as a bona fide running back, in addition to being a soon-to-be All-Pro receiver, has altered the equation for the 49ers’ offense. It is no coincidence that their three-game win streak — in all three of which they have dominated the time of possession and Jimmy Garoppolo has thrown 26 times or fewer— began with him taking on that role in earnest.
Now Samuel is out with a groin strain. He’s down for at least this week and perhaps the next, if we’re taking the 49ers’ injury assessment at face value.
We saw last season that when Samuel went down, they were unable to replace his impact. To be fair, that 49ers team was in dire straits early on, with a lahar of injuries overwhelming them.
In spite of that unceasing wave, the 49ers managed to build momentum heading into Week 8. With back-to-back wins over the Rams and Patriots, they had clawed back to a 4-3 record.
That was accomplished on the back of Samuel, who had 6 catches for 66 yards and a touchdown, and 5 catches for 55 yards in those two games, respectively. Most of those, though, were only receptions in name.
In Week 6, his average depth of target (where players are targeted in relation to the line of scrimmage) was -5.3 yards, and in Week 7, it was -2.6 yards. Both ranked last in the NFL.
In 2020, Samuel had an average depth of target of 2.1 yards past the line of scrimmage, last in the NFL among qualified receivers. The next-closest player, Drew Sample, had an average depth of target of 4.5 yards. Samuel was already doing a version of this positional defiance last season.
As Kyle Shanahan mentioned Friday, Samuel was basically being used the same way in those game last year as he has been this year. The only difference is that last year’s carries came on touch passes, which are glorified handoffs.
“I thought he did it last year, he just didn’t get to play that much,” Shanahan said after the November 21 win over the Jaguars. “They didn’t count it as carries because you catch the ball and you toss it three inches [forward] to him. But he ran seven of those versus the Rams last year in the first game and I think he ran four of them the second game, but they all count as passes.
He’s been running the ball here — I think we started to realize how good he was, I think towards the second half of his rookie year. But we haven’t tossed them [this year], so he gets more running stats and he’s continuing to get better at it as we continue to do it more.”
It’s simultaneously easy to quantify Samuel’s impact and extraordinarily difficult. The yardage and touchdown stats are obvious, but the ability to use him as a wild card and force defenses into conflict consistently is much tougher to gauge.
George Kittle said after the win over the Rams that Samuel has done “everything” for the 49ers’ offense over the last three weeks.
“We can just go out in every personnel and they don’t know if we’re going to be throwing the ball or if he’s going to motion in the backfield,” Kittle said. “And when he’s in the backfield, you don’t really know what we’re going to do. I think he just adds a dynamic to our offense that you can’t really prepare for.
Like yeah, sure, load the box and you can put out your base personnel if you want to when we have four wide receivers out there and he’s a running back, but we can just throw it out of that. You’re gonna get someone matched up on a linebacker; that’s bad for you. So he just allows us to put the defense in positions where we want them. I think that’s why we’ve been winning so much.”
Without Samuel last season, there was the looming question of how the 49ers could attempt to replicate the unpredictability of their offense. Could someone else slot in and take over the mercurial, receiver-running back role? The answer was, unquestionably, no.
After the back-to-back wins in Weeks 7 and 8, led by that Samuel touch pass expedition, he was injured on the first carry of the following game… in Seattle. Garoppolo didn’t return in the second half of that game, either. It was in many ways, the death-knell of a doomed season. That fate could and should be returned to Seattle on Sunday.
Without Samuel, there was still receiving production from Brandon Aiyuk, and one comically productive stat line from Richie James Jr. in one game without both Samuel and Aiyuk (nine catches, 184 yards, 1 TD), but no one replicated Samuel’s jack-of-all-trades role, and the 49ers immediately hit a three-game skid without him in the lineup.
When he returned, he took off for 11 receptions for 133 yards, at least four of which, as Shanahan recalled, were essentially runs. In that game, the 49ers stunned the Rams and felt like they had the wind under their sails with the potential to make a playoff run.
Instead, Josh Allen and the Bills walloped their defense the following game, and Samuel was injured for the remainder of the season after an opening carry the following week, and despair further enveloped the season.
So, at this point, we don’t really have an answer as to how the 49ers’ offense can be effective — at least not consistently — without Samuel in the lineup.
Shanahan pointed toward other players taking some of his plays.
“You give plays to whoever can do them,” Shanahan said. “However which way. Some stuff you guys have seen Deebo do, George [Kittle] has done that before. Not as much, but we’ve had Aiyuk do it before. If you think it’s effective, then you do it.”
It’s not exactly a confidence-inspiring response, especially given the context of when Samuel went down last season, the 49ers didn’t try to put players in similar positions anywhere near as consistently.
Maybe Jauan Jennings, who ran the wildcat at Tennesee, and has seen his stock increase as of late, could be an option. Or perhaps a committee effort, of Jennings, Kittle, Aiyuk and co. could be employed.
Whatever the approach is, Shanahan noted success is determined by blocking, not Samuel alone.
“Usually you have to find a new recipe almost every week, but regardless of what you do, people are usually going to be able to stop it,” Shanahan said. “And Deebo was still able to break a few big runs here three weeks in a row. But regardless of who breaks it, whether it’s Deebo, it’s not some real trick. It’s real good blocking and having a good runner who’s got a chance to break a tackle and make an explosive, not just six-yard gain. I think Elijah has done a pretty good job of that. And I think we’ve got some guys who are capable.”
True as that may be, the 49ers lose an enormous piece of their identity without Samuel.
Since he was drafted, San Francisco has gone 27-19, winning 58.7 percent of their games. With him, they’ve gone 23-12 (excluding the game he played one snap, or 23-13 including that game), winning 65.7 percent.
The difference is a 5-7 record without Samuel. You can obviously make this same argument for Nick Bosa — who the 49ers are 6-9 without, and 21-10 with — but Samuel played in two different stretches of the 2020 season, showing a clearer picture of his impact on the offense.
Against a Seahawks team which is elite specifically at stopping the run, San Francisco’s patented outside zone run game will be much more difficult to execute, especially without Samuel.
So what’s the recipe for maintaining the offensive success of the last three weeks without him?
Garoppolo, the master of platitudes, made it sound awfully simple, saying, as he has so many times before, that players simply need to play well.
“Guys stepping up,” Garoppolo said. “I think Trent [Sherfield] did a great job of stepping into the game when Deebo went down, you know, made a big third-down conversion for us. Other guys stepping up and just moving some guys around, I think it will be a little easier this week with the week to plan for it, but guys have to step up, whether it’s at running back, receiver, making YAC with the ball in your hands, it’s all those little things will add up this game.”
Shanahan didn’t make a massive effort to replicate Samuel’s usage when he went down in 2020, but maybe he’s learned from that stretch and seek out those unorthodox, guaranteed touches for other offensive weapons. Playing in Seattle, even against a 3-8 team, that might be necessary.