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How 49ers' Deebo Samuel became the scariest weapon in the NFL

Arlington, Texas, USA; San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel (19) runs with the ball against the Dallas Cowboys during the first half of the NFC Wild Card playoff football game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Injury history. Age. Production. Deebo Samuel had his fair share of red flags coming out of South Carolina.

Not too many teams get excited about a 23-year-old receiver prospect who looks more like a running back, missed multiple games in three of his college seasons and never recorded more than 882 yards in a year.

But despite all that, Kyle Shanahan, John Lynch and the San Francisco 49ers recognized the immense talent the South Carolina product possessed. They drafted him with the 36th overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, and from Day 1 it was clear that even that was too low. Samuel, who was the third receiver off the board in 2019, went for 802 yards on 57 catches in his rookie year, with an NFL-high 18 broken tackles to take the 49ers to the brink of a Super Bowl victory.

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The injuries struck in 2020, limiting him to only seven games. And heading into 2021, second-year receiver Brandon Aiyuk was generating the fantasy football hype as the possible lead dog. While Samuel put that to bed real quick with a nine-catch, 189-yard day against the Detroit Lions in Week 1, the 49ers offense was still somehow sputtering despite Samuel putting up big numbers.

Through nine weeks of the regular season, Samuel had produced the second-most receiving yards in the league (882), but the 49ers were a measly 3-5 and had put up just 0.004 expected points added (EPA) per play on offense, 16th in the NFL. They headed into their Week 10 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams on Monday Night Football with their backs firmly against the wall. 

That’s when Kyle Shanahan decided to get rid of the middle man for his most dangerous offensive weapon. In that win, Deebo lined up in the backfield six times after only doing so seven times over the first nine weeks. He took five carries for 36 yards with a score as the 49ers' ground game rolled. The offense hasn’t looked back since.

Over the past nine weeks, Deebo has transcended positional designation and is liable to line up anywhere at any point. He’s taken at least five backfield snaps in every game over that span as the 49ers have started deploying Samuel unlike any other No. 1 receiver in the NFL.

Most backfield snaps played by wide receivers (2021)
Receiver Snaps in Backfield
Ty Montgomery 81
Deebo Samuel 80
Rondale Moore 37
Cooper Kupp 17

As you can see, only “gadgety” receivers even come close to Samuel’s usage this season.

It’s not hyperbole to say that change in usage has transformed the San Francisco offense. Deebo’s backfield snaps have generated an absurd 0.337 EPA per play — that means those plays have led to 31.3 total EPA while the 785 other snaps the 49ers offense has played have created only 48.7 EPA.

That once-average offense has ranked top-five in EPA per play since Deebo’s usage change in Week 10. 

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