San Francisco 49ers' Deebo Samuel created his own position: 'Wide back'

ByNick Wagoner ESPN logo
Thursday, January 20, 2022

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- During a standard San Francisco 49ers practice, receiver Deebo Samuel has no shortage of things to do. With one notable exception.

Soon after the Niners wrap up stretching and transition to a special teams period, Samuel finds himself with the only opening in his daily practice schedule. With that time, Samuel sidles up to coach Kyle Shanahan for a chat.

It happens before every practice, and the topic of conversation ranges from how Samuel is feeling to the upcoming session to the next opponent. On a recent afternoon, Samuel brought up his son -- Tyshun Raequan Samuel Jr. -- who was born on Dec. 27 but is apparently already showing signs of following in his father's footsteps.

"He's 3 weeks old and he's already holding his bottle by himself," Shanahan said. "So, [Deebo] is just convinced that means he's going to be a top pick in the draft."

In those conversations, Shanahan and Samuel talk about, well, everything. Which is only fitting because everything is what Samuel does for the 49ers and it's also what he's meant to them this season.

In his third NFL season, Samuel has emerged as a supernova, forcefully inserting himself into a different discussion about the game's best offensive weapons. At times, he has also put the 49ers on his back, carrying them to the NFL divisional round of the playoffs against the Green Bay Packers on Saturday (8:15 p.m. ET, Fox).

The thing about Samuel isn't the amount of success he's had but the number of ways he's left opposing defenses in his cosmic dust.

While playing receiver, running back and, occasionally, quarterback, Samuel accounted for 15 total touchdowns on his way to earning first-team All-Pro honors for the first time. Samuel is aware of the unique job he has, even creating a name for it: wide back.

His 1,770 yards from scrimmage ranked third in the NFL.

He led the NFL in yards per reception (18.3) and was fourth in yards per rush (6.2) among players with at least 50 receptions or rushes.

His eight rushing touchdowns are the most by a receiver in a season since 1970, and he's the only receiver in the modern era to lead his team in rushing touchdowns.

He became one of four players -- alongside Roger Craig, Marshall Faulk and Christian McCaffrey -- to have at least 1,000 receiving yards and five rushing touchdowns in a season.

In a wild-card win over theDallas Cowboyslast week, Samuel set an NFL record for most rushing yards (72) by a primary receiver in a playoff game during the Super Bowl era, including his ninth rushing touchdown of the year.

Whenever the 49ers needed an offensive jolt, Samuel and his unique mix of hard-charging physicality and blazing speed provided it no matter how big the moment.

"That's just naturally who he is," Shanahan said. "He'll be asleep right before kickoff and he'll come out and not hesitate on the first play. When you're like that, it allows your heart rate to be level, your breath to be level, and you have a certain point to you, so you can kind of do the more instinctual stuff and yet still be violent enough to play at the level he does. It's not something you see in a lot of athletes."

'A natural football player'

Before a pair of early-season games, Samuel was asked if the Rams' Odell Beckham Jr. or Seahawks' DK Metcalf were receivers he studied. Samuel shook his head and said no.

Samuel meant no disrespect. It's just that what he's asked to do on a weekly basis means there's only one wide receiver worth watching closely: himself.

"I know you can learn from other guys, but not if you're not kind of built like them," Samuel said. "For myself, it's to see how I come in and out of breaks, what a certain guy's matchup is or the things that guys like to do when they are facing guys like me even though there's not that many."

For most of his football-playing life, Samuel has played a hybrid role. He did it at Inman Chapman (South Carolina) High and again at the University of South Carolina.

Receiver has always been Samuel's primary position, but running back was not new to him when the Niners first started using him there as a rookie in 2019.

Still, most of Samuel's work during his first two seasons came as a receiver. In his first 22 games, Samuel had 22 carries. Of those, six came from a true running back position.

When the injury bug began to bite Niners running backs this year, Shanahan and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel turned to Samuel to help pick up the slack. After gaining 22 rushing yards -- compared to 882 receiving yards -- in his first eight games this season, Samuel surged to 343 rushing yards and seven rushing touchdowns during his final eight regular-season contests.

Including the wild-card win in Dallas, Samuel has played in 17 games, rushing from a true running back position 64 times for 421 yards and nine touchdowns. On those nine touchdowns runs, Samuel has averaged 16.44 yards per carry, which is only slightly less than the average distance (16.76 yards) of the 840 receiving touchdowns in the NFL this season.

San Francisco is 7-0 when Samuel gets six-plus carries in a game.

Considering how complicated the Niners' outside-zone-heavy run scheme can be, it's fair to assume Samuel spent time in the meeting room with running backs coach Bobby Turner. That would be wrong.

"He spends almost no time with that," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "He's never in the running back room. That's what's so impressive is what a natural football player Deebo is."

Turner takes Samuel aside between practice periods, offers a few tips on the correct footwork, running path and timing, and Samuel picks it up.

In some cases, Samuel hasn't run a play at all during the week, but Turner will give instructions (the path, where to line up and where to aim, for example) in the walk-through the day before a game. Samuel takes care of the rest.

"You kind of know what running plays you're gonna get, so it's not too much stress," Samuel said. "At first it was kind of hard, but as time goes it just gets easier and easier."

Evolution of the 'wide back'

Percy Harvin last played in the NFL in 2016, but at 33 he feels like he still has some football in him. That belief bubbles to the surface when Harvin turns on games and sees more players doing many of the things he once did for the Vikings, Seahawks, Jets and Bills.

Looking back, Harvin says his football prime came too soon, as more all-purpose playmakers like him now dot the NFL landscape. He sees Tavon Austin in Jacksonville, Cordarrelle Patterson in Atlanta and, of course, Samuel.

Ask NFL evaluators for a comp for Samuel and Harvin's name comes up the most.

"I thought for a year or two, Tavon kind of kept it going and then Cord, but other than those two, I felt the position was going to kind of fall off until last year and the year before that," Harvin said. "It kind of picked back up with Deebo. I'm kind of like, 'OK, they realize you can really do some things if you've got a guy who can really do it and knows what he's doing.'"

The weekly toll of playing in the NFL is already high for receivers who are often asked to make catches over the middle and log multiple miles running and hoping for the ball to come their way.

What happens when you move to running back, one of the most physically demanding positions in sports? In addition to learning plays from a different spot on the field, running backs are subjected to more collisions than any other skill position.

For someone like Austin, who entered the league in 2013 at 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, taking care of his body wasn't as much of a factor early in his career because he was so used to the dual role. He wouldn't even use the cold tub after games.

"With age I've got to spend a little bit more time on my body," Austin said. "I've always been a guy that takes care of my body, but now it's really to the extreme. I feel like when I do that, when I come out here, I see that I'm still running fast. So that's the most important thing."

For Patterson, the move has been more drastic. He played more snaps at running back (290) than receiver (150) in 2021. The Chicago Bears first asked Patterson to play running back in 2020. It took Patterson, who also entered the league in 2013 and had only done spot duty at running back, some time to get used to it.

"I was like, 'Oh Lord, this is different,'" Patterson said. "But at the end of the day, I just do whatever I can."

The one thing each hybrid player has in common: a level of physical and mental toughness that belies his size.

At 6 feet, 220 pounds, Samuel is built differently than many receivers. He views it as an advantage, and that mentality shows up often with his ability to plow through defenders. Samuel led all receivers in yards after catch per reception (10), with the closest wideout coming at 8.53.

"When he gets the ball in his hands, it's just different," tight end George Kittle said. "He has a different mindset -- he's trying to run people over, he's trying to knock mouthpieces out, he's trying to body guys. It's a physical game, and he's out there embarrassing fools."

'A good stress'

Considering what Samuel has done this season, the idea he could take his game to another level might seem surprising, but the 49ers believe his ceiling is limited by the depths of their imagination.

"It's something that you really dream of as a coach in terms of being able to utilize people in different ways to try to find advantageous looks for the offense in general," McDaniel said. "We challenge ourselves to open our mind and really see how we can do our best to stress a defense out, but don't get it twisted -- it's a good stress. Something that you're challenging yourself with because all he does is alleviate stress on game days for his teammates and coaches alike.

"It's a lot easier to figure stuff out on Monday and Tuesday when the problem that you're trying to solve is how do I get this guy the ball? And on game day, 'Hey, Deebo, here's the ball.' That's the best thing for a coach that you could possibly imagine."

For other coaches and personnel evaluators around the league, McDaniel's words should resonate. Perhaps the definition of what a No. 1 receiver looks like is changing. At minimum, the emergence of Samuel and his contemporaries should open some eyes to players who might otherwise fly under the radar.

Patterson would like to see the Pro Bowl add a spot for hybrid offensive players, noting "we're just trying to set trends."

After all, prototypical receivers have to rely on quarterbacks to get them the ball, and defenses can take them away with scheme. However, if the Niners want to put Samuel in the backfield and hand him the ball, there's nothing anybody can do.

"When you talk about touches and ways to affect the game where you don't have to get 10 catches as a receiver and you can go and still get touches out of the backfield, your chances of making a big play are high," Harvin said. "You can still affect the game in a big way."

Which is why in the ultimate copycat league, everybody is seeking a wide back of their own.

"Anytime people kind of approach some uncharted territory, it kind of opens people's minds," McDaniel said. "But if you've watched any of the draft coverage the last couple years, people have been trying to find the next Deebo. The problem is, there's one Deebo."

On the contrary, as Shanahan can attest, there actually is another Deebo. He's already holding a bottle on his own, but he won't be draft-eligible until about 2043.

ESPN NFL reporters Michael DiRocco and Michael Rothstein contributed to this story.

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