Let’s be honest, the only way the 49ers get to a Super Bowl next season is if their defense stays healthy and Deebo Samuel has another MVP-type season. And the only way he does that is if he remains healthy while being used like a pee wee team’s best player. He’s the answer to the question, “What are we going to do, coach?”
No one knows the reason for his trade request, and he made that clear in tweets.
When the news first hit, DJ Dunson of Deadspin wondered if his role was the reason why he wants out. Lining up at running back takes years off careers like delivering pizzas accelerates the lifespan of your white drop-top 1989 Olds Cutlass with maroon interior and a roll bar that still shows up in dreams.
Right now, after a brilliant season, San Francisco GM John Lynch “can’t envision” a situation in which the teams trades its best offensive player. He’ll definitely be able to conjure up a scenario in a couple years when Samuel’s body breaks down, because the 49ers don’t have a quarterback who’s yet capable of spreading around the workload.
Trading your best asset at the peak of his value to reup your infrastructure isn’t the worst idea, especially when he was hurt two years ago and teams are offering a first and bunch of other picks. The best bet to ensure that Samuel’s 2020 injury-riddled season was an outlier would be to avoid grinding him into the dirt. The 49ers can’t simultaneously compete and load manage Samuel in a stacked division and conference.
He had 1,700-plus yards from scrimmage with 365 coming on the ground in 2021. Of his 1,405 receiving yards, 779 came after the catch. Technically, he gained more than 1,000 yards with the ball in his hands. At 184 yards after contact, he was the only non-QB or running back in the top 100 in that category, per Pro Football Reference. (Cordarelle Patterson had more, but unlike Samuel, you could play him at running back in fantasy football so I’m not counting him.)
The team says its goal is a Super Bowl, and that’s cool because they’re talented enough. That said, the window to win a title without a great quarterback can close at random like it did in 2020, when San Francisco was devastated by injuries. I find the QB obsession nauseating; however, it’s justified because they can mask deficiencies like a skill position player or a lineman missing a game with a strained hammy. Samuel can do everything but that.
Of course Lynch isn’t interested in moving off of his star player because he’s as close to a one man show as a non-quarterback can get. He’s insurance for the organization’s dilemma under center.
There haven’t been any takers on Jimmy Garoppolo, who had shoulder surgery in the offseason, but regardless of whether Jimmy G or Trey Lance starts in the fall, there’s not a Madden simulation on Earth where the team reaches the Super Bowl without a herculean effort out of Samuel. George Kittle dealt with nagging injuries last year, was outright injured the year before, and the physical way he plays invites punishment. And their running backs are as injured as they are coveted.
I understand the agony of Niners’ fans because No. 19 is the offense, and a player gifted enough to do that at the NFL level is extremely special. It’s also exceedingly rare to consistently pull that off and almost unheard of from a wide receiver. We also haven’t come across a ton of guys who can take over a game from that position without an elite (*heavy sigh*) quarterback, so he stands out for that reason, as well. We could see more of it with how offenses are evolving — Atlanta’s Art Smith finally tapping Patterson’s potential is an example to a vastly lesser degree.
San Francisco could find an approximation to Samuel in the first round of this draft, and even though Treylon Burks may be a bootleg version, he’s cheaper and not fuming for reasons that remain unclear. The 49ers are perhaps the best team in the NFL at contending despite a suboptimal quarterback, but until they’re no longer reliant on a running game and the best gimmicks Jimmy G or Trey Lance can execute, they’ll need a pipeline of durable, talented skill players who are willing to take a beating and come at a non-crippling value.
The question isn’t if San Francisco can vie for a title with Samuel, we know they can. It’s how long can the 49ers vie for a title when its highest paid position player isn’t a running back but takes hits like one.