If wide receiver Deebo Samuel misses a lot of time with an injured hamstring, the 49ers will have to replace one of the NFL's most unique players during an increasingly difficult stretch of their schedule.
The 49ers, quite simply, use the second-year pro in a way that no other offense uses a wide receiver. Rotoworld's Patrick Daugherty noted that Samuel's 2.3 average targeted air yards is, by far, the lowest in the league.
Despite missing the first three games of the season, Samuel ended Sunday with the league's 11th-most yards after the catch (209). Samuel has 185 receiving yards in total, meaning the receiver has been, on aggregate, targeted 24 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The only players with a greater difference in their YAC and total receiving yards are running backs Mike Davis (273 YAC and 233 receiving yards), James Robinson (253 YAC, 225 receiving yards) and Ezekiel Elliott (236 YAC, 210 receiving yards).
Samuel, it bears repeating, is a wide receiver.
Tight end George Kittle is the 49ers' most dominant pass-catcher, but Samuel gives coach Kyle Shanahan's offense a unique dimension. Considering how much the 49ers are relying on a short passing game, missing Samuel's ability to make plays in space for any period of time will be a big absence to overcome.
Rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk is emerging as a legitimate threat in the passing game, and the 49ers used him in Samuel-esque ways earlier in the season while Samuel was still recovering from offseason foot surgery. Aiyuk is a "YAC Bro" in his own right, capable of dazzling in the open field. But the 49ers might not use him in exactly the same way they've used Samuel if the latter needs to miss any time.
Samuel showed he was a unique player last season, rushing for as many touchdowns (three) as he caught. He also set a Super Bowl record for rushing yards by a receiver, further proving his playmaking abilities.
The 49ers have started to take full advantage of them so far this season, and Samuel missing any more games will require some adjustments from Shanahan's offense.