We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2020 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.
The 2019 49ers were a better deep ball from Jimmy Garoppolo to Emmanuel Sanders away from capturing the Super Bowl. Sure, the 49ers' franchise QB wasn't among the league's top-tier signal callers throughout the season, but clearly the offense was *this* close to being good enough to capture ultimate glory.
2019 second-round pick Deebo Samuel was a big reason why the offense managed to largely function as one of the league's best units. The rookie wasted little time bursting on the scene as both a rusher and receiver, working as the No. 2 option in the passing game behind only George Kittle for the majority of his rookie campaign.
Now Samuel is the clear-cut No. 1 WR in San Francisco after Emmanuel Sanders took his talents to New Orleans. This still figures to be a run-first offense with Kittle locked in as the star, but could 2020 present newfound glory for Samuel? What follows is a breakdown on just how special his rookie season was, and what we should expect from the 49ers' passing game in 2020.
Samuel is an incredibly difficult man to tackle
Coach Kyle Shanahan showed a passion for making the most out of Samuel's RB-esque ability with the ball in his hands, regularly involving the rookie as a ball carrier from the preseason all the way through the Super Bowl. Overall, the 49ers' stud rookie converted his 14 rush attempts into 159 yards and a trio of scores during the regular season before tacking on an additional 102 yards on just six carries during three postseason games. The efficiency in particular stands out; this marked just the 14th time since 2000 that a player averaged double-digit yards per carry (minimum 10 rush attempts) in a season.
Samuel certainly benefits from Shanahan's schematic genius and ability to get play-makers into the open field. It's still more than clear Samuel is a special player in his own right.
Of course, Samuel mostly functions as a true WR. Volume was fairly scarce for every receiver other than Kittle in this run-first offense, but the 49ers still managed to get the most out of their shiny new weapon:
- Yards per target: 9.9 (No. 10 among 80 WRs with at least 50 targets)
- Yards per reception: 14.1 (No. 28)
- Yards per route run: 2.04 (No. 15)
Samuel's playmaker rate, which rewards big plays and scores per opportunity, was the 10th-highest mark in the league among 214 qualified players.
The most-impressive part about his game is the consistent ability to create magic with the ball in his hands. Only A.J. Brown (8.8) averaged more yards after the catch per reception than Samuel (8.5). His 25 broken tackles in 2019 trailed only Lamar Jackson (42) among all non-RBs (PFF).
Samuel made the most out of his touches all season long. He could potentially benefit from increased volume in 2020 considering the lack of additions that were made to the offense.
Samuel looks a lot like this offense's undisputed No. 1 WR
There were three key departures from this offense: RB Matt Breida, WR Marquise Goodwin and WR Emmanuel Sanders. The latter subtraction in particular is key for Samuel considering the mid-season addition was the offense's No. 3 pass-game target during the second half of the season through the Super Bowl.
Things aren't crystal clear for Samuel to join Kittle in the triple-digit target club, but it does seem more likely than not. The following WRs are Samuel's primary competition for targets:
- Brandon Aiyuk was the 49ers' first-round pick and is the most-likely candidate to join Samuel in two-WR sets. He doesn't possess overwhelming size (6-foot-0 and 205-pounds) or speed (4.5-second 40-yard dash), but his average of 17 yards per catch at Arizona State reflects the reality that it's a problem to get him to the ground. Shanahan called Aiyuk his favorite WR in the draft, meaning a rather large day-one role isn't impossible. At a minimum, Aiyuk possesses the type of after-the-catch goodness to fit neatly inside this offense and see a handful of opportunities per game.
- Kendrick Bourne converted all five of his targets inside the 10-yard line into scores during the regular season, making the most of his part-time role. Still, he's cleared 50 yards in just 6-of-46 games since joining the 49ers in 2017. There's a low ceiling and floor alike for Bourne in 2020; it wouldn't be surprising if he's unseated by one of the team's young WRs.
- Jalen Hurd missed all of 2019 due to a back injury. He was earning some preseason hype thanks to his versatile skill-set and (wait for it) ability to rack up yards after the catch. The former collegiate RB/WR doesn't appear to be as firmly placed as a true WR, meaning more of a part-time role could be on the table. Either way, it's another talented piece that Shanahan should be plenty capable of manufacturing touches for.
- Dante Pettis averaged 10.4 yards per target in a promising rookie campaign ... then sunk to 4.5 yards per target during a worst-case scenario 2019 encore. He's fighting for a roster spot ahead of 2020, let alone a consistent role in the passing game.
- Richie James is the team's primary returner and league-best flipper in the victory formation. While James does occasionally soak up some snaps, he has just 24 targets in 29 games over the past two seasons.
- Trent Taylor was the leading candidate to start out of the slot in 2019 before missing the entire season with a Jones fracture. He could certainly win back the slot job, but a concentrated effort to get him the ball seems unlikely considering the other weapons all over the field.
- Travis Benjamin is the team's replacement for Goodwin. The ex-Chargers' field-stretching WR could be asked to fly down the field on a few well-designed shot plays; just don't expect to see consistent target share.
Add it all together and ...
Samuel is good enough to meet value in 2020
We saw enough from Samuel to feel great about what he could do with a featured role ... it's just tough to say if that sort of volume will be on the way in 2020. This pass game flows through Kittle (as it should), and there is enough uncertainty with similarly-talented players like Aiyuk and Hurd entering the offense to feel a bit nervous about whether or not Samuel will truly pull away as the undisputed No. 1 WR.
Shanahan already knows Samuel can consistently make plays at the game's highest level. So does Jimmy G, who might not be the NFL's premiere off-script QB, but is still one of six signal callers in league history to average at least eight adjusted yards per attempt (min. 16 starts). Samuel joins Robert Woods as the two key WRs that have enough of a rushing floor to truly win a tiebreaker between a similarly-ranked player.
The 49ers' projected No. 1 WR is presently going in the WR26-28 range in best-ball drafts. This seems more than fair! I have Deebo as my PPR WR24 and could understand ranking him as high as WR20. At the same time, ranking Samuel closer to the WR30 range is warranted. Brandon Aiyuk is the only other WR I'd consider drafting from the squad. He's a free late-round dart throw with an ADP in the WR60 range and potential to start in two-WR sets as early as Week 1.
There are tons and tons of talented WRs up through the mid-WR40 range. This is the key reason why many in the industry, including myself, are recommending RB-RB or even RB-RB-RB starts in fantasy drafts. Similarly-ranked WRs like D.J. Chark and Terry McLaurin probably have more upside as their offense's No. 1 pass-game option, but Samuel's pairing with Shanny shouldn't be underrated. He's a borderline WR2 in fantasy formats of all shapes and sizes and should be treated as such entering 2020.