Image Credit: Andrew Giesemann
The San Francisco 49ers started the season with a slowly developing passing game. Able to lean on their run game on most downs, and then George Kittle on third-and-anything, head coach Kyle Shanahan slowly put more and more weight on the shoulders of quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo. With running back Matt Breida’s hurt ankle and losing both fullback extraordinaire Kyle Juszczyk’s and Kittle’s downfield blocking – not to mention starting tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey for a few games, more and more pressure has been placed on producing 300- to 400-yard passing games.
To help with the situation, general manager John Lynch traded for veteran receiver Emmanuel Sanders, who alleviated some of the built-up pressure, but he too has now missed time over the last two games due to torn cartilage in his ribs. So without Kittle or Sanders against the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals, what was Shanahan and Garoppolo going to do?
Enter wide receiver Deebo Samuel.
49er fans have been talking about his potential since last year’s Senior Bowl. The first half of the season saw him drop more passes than any other 49ers WR on the roster, but fans and commentators alike pointed out to his passion and violence after making the catch, running more like a RB than a WR after the catch.
Against the Seahawks, Samuel had his coming-out game with 8 catches for 112 yards, becoming the first 49ers receiver to record 8 catches and more than 100 yards in a game since the illustrious Jerry Rice. How did he follow that up against the Cardinals? With another 8 catches for 134 yards, becoming the first 49ers rookie wideout to have two games of 8 receptions and over 100 yards. That gave him 38 catches for 473 yards and one touchdown over the first ten games of his first professional career, trailing just Kittle this season in each of the first two categories.
What should you expect from Samuel in these three very important upcoming games against the Green Bay Packers, Baltimore Ravens, and New Orleans Saints? If the run game continues to falter, then expect Garoppolo to continue to put up 30 plus pass attempts a game, but who will those targets go towards? It depends on the health of both Kittle and Sanders. If they continue to miss time, which is likely, Samuel should continue to receive double digit targets and put up stat lines much like he had the last two games. He has shown that he has the chops to make catches with defenders on him and that he can run crossing, slant, and go routes not just bubble screens and end-arounds.
If even one or both of those players come back in the next three games, expect Samuel’s target numbers to decrease a bit, but he has shown that he has big play potential and could be a solid third down target. The return of Sanders and Kittle will likely take targets away from the likes of Ross Dwelley and Kendrick Bourne more than Samuel due to Garoppolo and Shanahan’s continued growth in their trust in Samuel. This is evident when looking at overtime of the Seahawks game: it wasn’t the veteran Marquise Goodwin who they tried to throw a deep ball to, it was Samuel.
Moving forward with a healthy team, Samuel’s targets will also drop due to Shanahan’s focus on the run game. If the offense gets healthy again and can run Breida and Tevin Coleman as a two headed backfield with Kittle and Sanders coming back as the top two targets, fans should expect Samuel to get six or seven targets a game and a higher YAC average with the defense not able to key on a specific 49ers receiver.
This would still equal the best output the team has had from a WR since Michael Crabtree was drafted. It looks like, if the team decides to keep Sanders past this season, the team has their top three targets in the passing game for the foreseeable future on the roster as well as their future WR1.
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