The 49ers as a whole had an extremely rough time navigating through the 2020 NFL season. Throughout the year it seemed as though every player had gotten injured at some point, something San Francisco has battled through in the past. On top of that add-in the effects of COVID-19, including being forced out of their own stadium and having to move and play their home games in Arizona, the 49ers did not have an easy go at it.
The injuries during last season forced San Francisco to constantly make adjustments to their game plan and scheme week-in and week-out. One player who was affected by this was the former second-round pick, Deebo Samuel. Jimmy Garappolo struggled to stay on the field last season due to an ankle injury and it forced the 49ers to not only make adjustments but to have to play both their back-up quarterbacks and play the hot hand, despite neither Nick Mullens and CJ Beathard not having the “hot hand”.
The way Kyle Shanahan and San Francisco used Deebo in 2020 was much different than the way they used him in the 2019 season. Perhaps the injuries play a role, he was only on the field for 7 of the 49ers’ 16 games last year, but when he was, he was used as a glorified running back. Last year, his average target distance was only 2.6 yards which would rank 108th in the NFL compared to his 2019 season where he saw an average target distance of 7.9.
It’s tough to nail down an exact reason as to why he lost over 5 yards a target, was it the effects of COVID, perhaps the lack of consistency at the quarterback position, or even the addition of Brandon Aiyuk in the 2020 NFL draft could have played a role. That being said, Deebo should not be limited as he was last season, he has real receiver chops and can affect multiple levels of the field and his 2019 film shows that.
Deebo was given many more opportunities during the 2019 season to show off his route running prowess, something he showed in college for the South Carolina Gamecocks. He has a knack for creating separation, both on the inside in the slot and on the outside against press coverage as seen verse the Seahawks in the last clip. He has the ability to gain leverage on defensive backs forcing them into bad positions and then using it against them. He is extremely explosive out of his breaks and can carry his speed through his cuts making it tough for corners to stay in his hip pocket.
In the last clip, against the Seahawks, is where we see Deebo at his best as a route runner. He does an excellent job winning at the line-of-scrimmage and getting the cornerback to flip his hips to the inside. Once he does so Deebo uses his hands to help create more separation as he begins to stem his route vertically. The corner stood no chance of staying in-phase with Deebo because he not only approached his route with a plan, but he was able to use his athleticism and route running prowess to get the defensive back out of position.
Deebo Samuel is never going to be a vertical threat who can stretch the defense downfield because he doesn’t possess the size and speed of some of the more dangerous deep threats in the game, but he has the requisite speed. He forces corners to respect that which is evident in the first clip. He does a great job climbing vertically and getting the corner into a position where he is forced to turn and run with Deebo and when this happens Deebo can snap his route back into the middle of the field and pick up a nice gain.
In the second clip, again verse the Seahawks, Deebo gets the corner into a place where he is forced to chase. Deebo makes him pay and had Jimmy Garappolo seen him come open it may have ended in a touchdown because there was nothing but open grass in front of him.
When you turn on the film from the 2020 season, you don’t see the same route distribution that you did in 2019. There were a lot more shuffle passes, which Deebo is extremely good at, and routes that took place much closer to the line-of-scrimmage. Not only that, but when Deebo was asked to run routes into the intermediate areas of the field the quarterback was not able to get him the ball as you see in the first 3 clips against the Miami Dolphins.
Last season for San Francisco, Deebo was used in more of a gadget role than a traditional receiver role. They used him in the screen game much more and even as a running back at times. As eluded to earlier in the article, it’s tough to nail down a definitive answer as to why this is the case, it could be many reasons. However, it shouldn’t be going forward. Deebo has receiver chops and can help add to San Francisco’s passing game and take some of the load off George Kittle in the middle of the field while you allow Aiyuk to be the receiver who stresses defenses vertically.
Many outside of the 49ers community view Deebo as a glorified running back, but that just isn’t the case. Is it a part of his game? Absolutely, he can do things with the ball in his hand that few are able to do, even take reps out of the backfield, but he should not be limited to this role. Again he may not be a vertical field stretcher like Aiyuk is, but he has the ability to win in both the short and intermediate areas of the field.
With competent quarterback play this year, and a full offseason to prepare, hopefully, we can see Deebo and the 49ers get back to their 2019 form where they were one of the best offenses in the NFL, and if this is the case Deebo Samuel could be in for a break-out season.