Deebo Samuel was unstoppable in the ‘wide back’ role in 2021, but the 49ers would be wise to keep him lined up as a receiver next year.
The San Francisco 49ers displayed all of Deebo Samuel‘s talents in 2021, and more will be expected of him in the upcoming season. He was dynamic as a pass-catcher and runner, finishing with 1,770 all-purpose regular-season yards and coining the phrase “wide back” along the way.
Samuel led the Niners to the seventh most total yards per game in the NFL with his all-around contributions, and his breakout year was rewarded with a spot on the NFL All-Pro team.
Fans hoping to see a repeat performance might be disappointed with the way Samuel could be used next year, though, and there are multiple reasons why he should spend a higher percentage of his offensive snaps next year as a wide receiver in comparison to his “wide back” feature role.
‘Wide back’ role poses a greater risk of injury to Deebo Samuel, 49ers
Samuel appeared in only seven games in his second NFL season due to injury but made a concerted effort to improve his overall health and conditioning the following offseason.
There were some soft-tissue ailments that plagued him in 2021, and he dealt with the normal bangs and bruises associated with being gang-tackled by 300-pound behemoths. For the most part, Samuel and the 49ers were lucky to have him available in every game but one.
There is not much history to go on for players taking on the kind of role Samuel had, but the risk of injury is much higher when he takes a handoff from the backfield. San Francisco doesn’t have enough playmakers on offense to make up for an injured Samuel and reach the Super Bowl, their ultimate goal for 2022.
Quarterback Trey Lance, assuming he’s the guy, will want No. 19 in the lineup as much as possible. The way Samuel beats single coverage and gets himself open on pivotal third downs makes him more valuable as a receiver than a runner.
Teams will be more prepared for Deebo Samuel, the 49ers runner
The element of surprise played a part in his success in 2021, and teams will be waiting to key in on Samuel when they see him in motion or line up in the backfield. The creativity of head coach Kyle Shanahan is perfectly suited for a player like Samuel, but there are other ways to keep defenses off balance.
At times, the offense seemed to go several possessions without targeting tight end George Kittle, which couldn’t have been by design. The 49ers were not proficient in throwing the ball deep downfield, so Kittle should have had more looks over the middle of the field, especially in the NFC Championship loss, where he was targeted only five times.
With fellow receivers like Brandon Aiyuk taking on a bigger role and Jauan Jennings getting more playing time, the Niners have a solid receiving core. Samuel is the biggest playmaker, but others have the potential to make plays as well.
Elijah Mitchell is 49ers’ No. 1 running option
The emergence of running back Elijah Mitchell transformed the 49ers into a ball-controlling offense looking to dominate the time of possession each game. The rookie back rushed for 963 yards and solidified his status as the primary rushing weapon on the team.
With the effectiveness of Mitchell, Samuel was a great complementary rusher.
In the games where Mitchell struggled to bust open a long run, Samuel was inserted, and more times than not, found an outside crease and picked up a large gain. Once Raheem Mostert went down in Week 1, the Niners were looking for a back who could get outside the tackles and turn upfield for long runs.
Mitchell was a pleasant surprise, but San Francisco didn’t view him as the home-run threat it missed in Mostert. Samuel was inserted into the backfield to fill the void and he never looked back.
Regardless, the more Mitchell is on the field, the more the 49ers can stick to their true identity as a smash-mouth running team. They have several backs who can pick up yards, but Mitchell is the bell cow who needs upwards of 20 carries each contest.
Samuel is a Swiss Army knife when he is on the field, and it will be enticing for Shanahan to call his number often. But with an injured Samuel, the Niners go to the middle of the pack as an average team struggling to finish with a winning record.
Samuel will be looking to improve upon his breakout year, whether he is catching the ball or avoiding defenders rushing through the A-gap. It will be up to the coaching staff to think of other ways to keep him productive as well as fresh and engaged.
While Samuel is a unique player, the 49ers need to remember his greatest asset will be his availability all season long.