The 49ers are set to sign wide receivers Tavon Austin and J.J. Nelson, per reports, yet that opens up questions about Deebo Samuel’s health.
The Niners are a bit shorthanded at the position even after spending two 2020 NFL Draft picks on wideouts, Brandon Aiyuk in Round 1 and Jauan Jennings in Round 7, particularly after returning receivers Deebo Samuel and Richie James suffered respective injuries during the offseason.
James’ future with the team likely was going to be as a return specialist, which is the niche head coach Kyle Shanahan had for him the past two years. Dealing with a broken wrist, James might not be back by the time the regular season begins.
But Samuel suffering a Jones fracture in his left foot is a bit more concerning. More on that in a second.
In Austin, San Francisco is getting a competent return specialist who spent the last two years with the Dallas Cowboys after his first five years in the league with the St. Louis/Los Angeles Rams. The Rams were looking to get an explosive wide receiver in Austin, taking him eighth overall in the 2013 NFL Draft, yet the speedy 5-foot-8 pass catcher peaked in 2016 with just 509 yards on 58 receptions and three touchdowns.
Austin wasn’t much of an offensive factor in Dallas, yet it’s not hard to see why his 4.34 40-yard dash could factor into Shanahan’s offense as a deep threat, particularly now for a 49ers squad without wide receivers Marquise Goodwin and Travis Benjamin.
Simply put, if Austin is going to resurrect his otherwise disappointing career, doing so under Shanahan is the perfect context.
Nelson, meanwhile, didn’t enter the league with quite as much flair, being a former fifth-round selection of the Arizona Cardinals back in 2015. But he did produce back-to-back 500-plus yard campaigns in 2016 and 2017, and he’s yet another player with plenty of speed to his game.
While not as prolific as Austin, Nelson does have special teams experience. Both could potentially fill James’ vacancy there if needed.
49ers’ concerns about Deebo Samuel’s health
Jones fractures can be complex, and Samuel’s initial prognosis was he could miss between eight to 16 weeks, potentially endangering his availability for the start of the season.
On the positive side of things, Samuel recently posted a video of him working out post surgery, and it doesn’t seem as if the foot is bothering him:
Working out in a controlled environment without shoes or pads is one thing. Doing so amid the rigors and physicality of an NFL field is another.
Without getting into the medical side of things too much, it’s entirely possible the Niners are guarding against the possibility Samuel might not be available anytime soon. Even if he’s available by the start of the regular season, he will have missed all of training camp and will certainly need a bit of time to reacclimate himself to on-field play.
In addition, San Francisco is also looking at two receivers returning from injuries last year, Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd, who may need additional time to acclimate. Third-year wideout Dante Pettis, meanwhile, is looking to bounce back from an otherwise forgettable 2019 campaign.
Simply put, the 49ers don’t exactly have a lot of proven veteran experience at the position, essentially justifying the additions of both Austin and Nelson.
It’s not yet clear how much is offered to both players or even if they’re guaranteed to be signed. And even if they’re both added, it’s far from certain either will make the 53-man roster.
Regardless, it doesn’t help alleviate concerns about Samuel’s return happening sooner than later.