Pro Football Network
San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel suffered a broken ankle last week while practicing with a teammate, which could be a serious problem for the team going into 2020. According to most sources, he will be out for somewhere between 12 to 16 weeks. Assuming the NFL season starts on time, that could result in him missing several games, which could put the 49ers in a difficult position.
Samuel was the 49ers best wide receiver last season, and one of the best rookie wide receivers in the entire NFL. He caught 57 passes for 802 yards and 3 touchdowns. Compared to other rookies at the position, only A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf did better statistically.
Samuel was one of the NFL’s most valuable wide receivers in 2019
Despite his success, Samuel’s statistics were actually slightly worse than they could have been under different circumstances. In 2019, the 49ers were something of a unique team. Their offense last season was based around their running game, and their leading receiver was tight end George Kittle.
That strategy got them to the Super Bowl, so I’m not going to argue against it, but it did reduce Samuel’s role in the offense. Over the course of the 2019 season, 55 players had more targets than he did. In a more conventional offense, his statistics could have been even more impressive.
Despite those limitations, Samuel was still one of the most valuable receivers in the NFL according to PFN’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM). The metric measures how responsible a player was for their statistical production, and therefore helps indicate how much impact they had on the overall offense.
In 2019, Samuel was one of the best wide receivers according to this metric; his grade of 38.63 was the second-highest among all qualifying wide receivers, and he maintained that excellence throughout 2019.
Samuel’s OSM grade fluctuated throughout 2019
Below, you can see how his grade fluctuated during the season. The black dots represent his grades during the weeks in which he qualified, and the yellow line represents the league average for wide receivers.
As you can see, though he often did not qualify for a grade due to a lack of targets, he regularly scored well above the league average, dipping below it only rarely, and even then only by a small amount.
Throughout the season, his consistent play made him one of the most impactful wide receivers in the NFL. Looking ahead to 2020, Samuel seemed set to be a major contributor to San Francisco’s offense once again. Losing him for even a game or two could create serious problems for them.
Samuel’s high OSM grade is the result of excellence in multiple areas
Samuel performed well on several metrics that are involved in calculating the OSM, but it was two areas in particular that really boosted his grade. To start with, he averaged 8.5 yards after catch (YAC), the second-highest total in the NFL.
The astute football fan might suggest that Samuel’s success in this area is the product of Kyle Shanahan’s offense, which does an excellent job of getting players into the open field. However, while that is true to a certain extent, this view of the situation overly devalues Samuel’s contributions.
We know this because the NFL, based on numerous factors, calculates how many yards a receiver should have gotten after catching the ball. According to their calculations, Samuel’s YAC average was 1.6 yards higher than expected, which was tied for the eighth-highest differential among wide receivers.
In other words, while Shanahan’s play design likely played a role in Samuel’s high YAC average, he was still one of the better players in the NFL at generating extra yards.
Samuel excelled in catch percentage rate
The other area in which Samuel excelled was his catch percentage, catching a remarkably high 70.37% of his targets. Only five wide receivers did better, making Samuel one of the NFL’s most efficient pass-catchers in 2019. Combining these statistics paint a clear picture of why Samuel was so valuable to the offense.
While he didn’t get as many targets as some other, higher-profile wide receivers, he caught the ball at a very high rate and was incredibly dangerous once the ball was in his hands, which is a truly frightening combination for opposing defenses.
The 49ers should be able to compensate for the loss of Samuel in 2020, at least for a while
Fortunately, Samuel’s injury shouldn’t keep him out of the starting lineup for too long, if at all. And even if it does, Shanahan has many places he could turn to pick up the slack. Wide receiver Jalen Hurd, who was drafted one round after Samuel, was injured for the entirety of 2019 but should be back and ready to play this season.
San Francisco also drafted Brandon Aiyuk in the first round of the most recent NFL draft. Between the two of them, they should be able to compensate for the loss of Samuel, at least for a short period of time.
Aiyuk, in particular, fits brilliantly into Shanahan’s offense and could be primed for a big rookie season. And once Samuel returns in 2020, assuming he can play up to the standard he set during his rookie year, he should once again become a prominent part of the offense.
In fact, given his success last season, he should arguably receive an even more significant role. Hopefully, this injury doesn’t hinder what was an otherwise promising start to his career.