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Finding next Deebo easier said than done for NFL teams

/ by Dalton Johnson
Presented By Toyota
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Deebo Samuel has been something the NFL has never seen, but someone who everyone knew growing up. Maybe even you yourself were your neighborhood's Deebo. Whether it was sports or something else entirely, everybody knew that one person who was just great at everything they did.

As the 49ers' star offensive weapon seems to change how the game can be played every time he touches the field, in reality, he's taking it back to the playground.

Catch, run, throw. Deebo Samuel is the ultimate compliment to a football player. He's exactly that: A football player, no labels needed. 

It's no surprise teams have been trying to replicate him through the draft the past two years, and it's no surprise they've come up short. That isn't going to stop teams from trying to find the next Samuel, no matter how many fail. His success this season is sure to make teams search even harder and figure out how to best utilize their top athletes. 

If anything, though, 2021 was just the best example that there's only one Deebo. 

"I think any time people kind of approach some uncharted territory, it kind of opens people's minds," 49ers offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel said Thursday to reporters. "If you've watched any of the draft coverage the last couple years, people have been trying to find the next Deebo.

"Problem is, is there's one Deebo. Maybe that opportunity will open it up for other guys with his skill sets."

Antonio Gibson, who was more of a receiver in college at Memphis and now is solely a running back for Washington, was supposed to be the Samuel of the 2020 draft and probably has been the closest when it comes to production. He finished his second season with 1,331 total yards -- 1,037 as a running back and 294 as a receiver. Gibson also scored 10 total touchdowns this season, with seven coming on the ground and three through the air. 

 

Players like Kadarius Toney, Rondale Moore and a handful of others were seen as the 2021 class' version of Samuel for their abilities to make defenders miss in college. Toney had only 426 yards from scrimmage as a rookie and failed to score a touchdown. Moore had 511 yards from scrimmage and scored just one TD. 

Arkansas' Treylon Burks is seen as the Deebo Samuel of this year's draft class for his stout size -- 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds -- physical style and versatility. Burks had 1,123 receiving yards as a junior this past season with 11 touchdowns, and added 112 rushing yards and another TD. 

Samuel, in his third year, finished the regular season with 1,770 yards from scrimmage and 14 touchdowns while missing one game to injury. Listed as a wide receiver, he had 77 receptions for 1,405 yards and caught six touchdowns. Despite being tied for 24th in the league in receptions, he finished fifth in yards. His 18.2 yards per reception led the NFL, and he also led the league in receiving yards after contact with 387. 

On the ground, he carried the ball 59 times for 395 rushing yards and scored eight touchdowns. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry and had six rushing touchdowns of more than 10 yards, which was tops in the NFL. His eight rushing TDs are the most ever by a receiver.

Samuel became the first receiver in NFL history to have more than 1,300 receiving yards and more than 300 rushing yards in the same season, while breaking numerous 49ers records.

He ranked third in the NFL in total yards and his 15th and final TD of the regular season was a 24-yard pass to Jauan Jennings to tie the game late in the third quarter of the 49ers' comeback win against the Los Angeles Rams in the finale to reach the playoffs. 

Yet, McDaniel says the 49ers still are adjusting to how to best use Samuel. Coaches usually want to see a player master a skill before moving onto something else. With Deebo, it's different. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk said earlier this season that Samuel is never in the running backs room during meetings and sometimes learns a play as a running back during walk-through right before executing it.

"That's what's so impressive and what a natural football player Deebo is," the fullback said nearly a month ago. "He doesn't need to be told too much. He can just go out there and he knows what feels right."

 

Even Kyle Shanahan admits the 49ers didn't know Samuel would give them this many options when they selected him in the second round of the 2019 draft. They never knew he'd be able to line up in the backfield and be their best running back at times. They were going after a physical receiver ahead of the draft and Samuel was the perfect solution. 

He has been so much more. 

Both McDaniel and Shanahan are two of the smartest offensive minds in football. They've been given perhaps the best weapon in the game, which sounds like a dream scenario. 

"It's a competitive challenge, it's a wonderful opportunity," McDaniel said. "It's something that you really dream of as a coach in terms of being able to utilize people in different ways to try and find advantageous looks for the offense in general. I would say that we challenge ourselves to open our mind and really see how we can do our best to stress a defense out.

"But don't get it twisted -- it's a good stress, something that you're challenging yourself with because all he does is alleviate stress on game days for his teammates and coaches alike. It's a lot easier to figure stuff out on Monday and Tuesday when the problem that you're trying to solve is, 'How do I get this guy the ball?' On game day, 'Hey, Deebo, here's the ball.'

"That's the best thing for a coach that you can possibly imagine."

RELATED: McDaniel focused on 49ers, not head coach possibilities

Samuel had 802 receiving yards and scored three touchdowns as a rookie. He also had 159 rushing yards and another three TDs, giving us a glimpse of how Shanahan could use the South Carolina product. But that was put on hold as injuries limited Samuel to only seven games last season.

Entering Year 3, Samuel had his best offseason and recently became a father for the first time. His birthday is the day before the 49ers' playoff matchup this Sunday with the Dallas Cowboys, and McDaniel believes he's seeing a better Deebo on a daily basis. From Shanahan to McDaniel and so many other 49ers decision-makers, Samuel's skills always were obvious. It's his growth and maturity as a person off the field that has allowed himself to grow just as much on the field. 

And that's what makes McDaniel most proud of Samuel's historic season. 

"He impresses me because he's a guy that has an unbelievable will to get better," McDaniel said. "He's such a cool personality, he never seems stressed and it's kind of a misrepresentation to how diligent he is in terms of progressing his craft. I think he'll be done worrying about getting better when he starts getting some 50 to 55-yard punts off. Then his game is complete.

"Otherwise, he is working day in, day out to put his best foot forward and take advantage of the opportunity. He's a wise 25, soon to be 26-year-old on Saturday, and he's getting better and better as we progress. And as a result, the 49ers are getting better as well."

 

Teams will continue searching for the next Deebo Samuel. He's brought backyard football to the bright lights in ways we never thought possible. The rare ability to combine everything listed above is what makes replicating him truly unlikely.

There's a reason sequels often aren't as great as the original, and the 49ers have a true OG in Deebo.

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