There are non-quarterbacks who have had tremendous impacts on their teams in the NFL this season.
- Cooper Kupp caught 145 passes for 1,947 yards and 16 touchdowns for the Los Angeles Rams.
- For the Indianapolis Colts, Jonathan Taylor touched the ball 372 times, totaling 2,171 yards from scrimmage and 20 touchdowns.
- Najee Harris is the Pittsburgh Steelers’ leading rusher with 307 carries for 1,200, but the rookie is also their second-best pass catcher. He totaled 74 receptions on the season, trailing only the Steelers top wide receiver, Diontae Johnson, and his 110 receptions.
Deebo Samuel is not asked to carry the offensive load for the San Francisco 49ers the same way that is required of the aforementioned offensive workhorses. His 136 total touches are less than Kupp’s reception total. However, it’s what Samuel does with those touches that’s had the 49ers on a tear in the second half of the season and made them a legitimate threat in the NFC playoffs.
Think of Samuel as Ty Montgomery with rockets in his cleats. At Stanford, Montgomery was an excellent wide receiver, but he was so athletic that he was also used in the backfield. He carried the ball 23 times as a senior. The Green Bay Packers drafted him, and in his second season they lost so many running backs to injury that they used Montgomery at that position not as a wrinkle to their offense, but as a necessity because they didn’t have anyone else.
That season Montgomery carried the ball 77 times for 457 yards and three touchdowns, and also caught 44 passes for 348 yards during the regular season. He was a key contributor in the playoffs, as well, as the Packers advanced to the NFC Championship Game. Montgomery currently plays for the New Orleans Saints and has not had a season nearly that productive since.
Or might he be a new Slash, reminiscent of when Kordell Stewart mixed in some QB/WR and whatever else the Steelers needed at any given time? Deebo is like a new-age Slash as he’s legitimately playing two positions.
Samuel carried the ball 59 times for the 49ers this season and is their leader in rushing touchdowns (8). He averaged 6.2 yards per carry and if it feels like he gets a first down every time the 49ers hand him the ball, that’s because of those 59 carries, 21 of them ended in a first down.
It can be so jarring to see Samuel be that successful in the backfield that it can be forgotten that he might actually be the best wide receiver in the NFL. He caught 77 passes, which is less than half of Kupp’s total, and he still totaled 1,405 receiving yards and six touchdowns. Samuel averaged a whopping 18.2 yards per reception and led all wide receivers in average yards after the catch (10.4), and the entire league in yards after contact (387.)
This past Sunday, Samuel saved the season for the 49ers. They had to beat the Los Angeles Rams to advance to the playoffs and were down 17-3 at halftime. Samuel ran in a 16-yard touchdown on the Niners’ opening drive in the third quarter, and then on their next drive he threw a 24-yard touchdown pass, because why not throw your first NFL touchdown pass in the most important game of the season.
In the fourth quarter, after the two minute warning, the 49ers had a 0.4 percent win probability, the lowest-ever recorded by a winning team since Next Gen Stats began keeping track of that in 2016. When the 49ers had the ball on their own 26-yard-line with 50 seconds and no timeouts remaining, it was Samuel’s 43-yard catch that got them inside L.A.’s 20-yard-line. The Niners tied the game two plays later with a touchdown.
That is the kind of playmaking that can cause sleepless nights for the Cowboys defensive coaches. They have the second-best defense in the NFL, per Football Outsiders, but the Rams have the fifth, and Samuel shredded them in the most important moments of the game.
Samuel doesn’t have the total statistical production of Kupp, and definitely not of Taylor in the running game, but that’s what makes his 2021 season so special. Samuel and the 49ers used his athleticism and tackle breaking ability 136 times this season to try and break games. A great passer can make a defense nervous and uneasy on the field, but a game-breaker like Samuel who can score from anywhere at any time. He can terrify a defense.
There is no one like him in the NFL, and for any team that faces the 49ers in the playoffs has to find a way to limit his impact, or else this game-breaker might break their season.