The 2020 season was set up to be Deebo Samuel's coming out party. The second-year receiver had been grinding all offseason in preparation to take over as the 49ers' No. 1 receiver.
Then Samuel broke his foot Tuesday in a workout with 49ers teammates in Nashville. He will have surgery Thursday and is expected to be out 12 to 16 weeks. Samuel tweeted he is optimistic he will be ready to go for the start of the season, but Jones fractures are tricky injuries. 49ers wide receiver Trent Taylor battled one as has Sammy Watkins and Kevin Durant. Fifty percent of athletes who have Jones fractures suffer incomplete healing.
While optimism is necessary, it should also be expected that Samuel might not be ready to go for Week 1and setbacks could occur.
The 49ers' offense lost Emmanuel Sanders in the offseason and now might be without Deebo Samuel for an unspecified period of time. While the 49ers still will have George Kittle -- the best tight end and one of the best pass-catchers in all of football -- and the ever-steady Kendrick Bourne, the loss of Samuel is a big one of their hopes of returning to the Super Bowl.
With Samuel on the shelf for an unspecified amount of time, the 49ers will need their other young receivers -- Brandon Aiyuk, Jauan Jennings and Jalen Hurd -- to step in and carry the load until Samuel can return.
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Big things already were expected of Aiyuk before Samuel went down. The 49ers traded up in the first round to draft Aiyuk with the No. 25 overall pick. The Arizona State product with an 81-inch wingspan and a devilish ability to break tackles now will go from the No. 3 pass-catching option behind Kittle and Samuel to the top wide receiver in the group. His ability to stretch the field vertically and turn a 6-yard slant into a 60-yard gain will now be needed more than ever as the 49ers look to march back to the Super Bowl and finish the job this time around.
Many thought Aiyuk might be brought along slowly to open the season, with Samuel, Kittle and Bourne getting the lion's share of targets from Jimmy Garoppolo after a truncated and odd offseason. There will be no time for them now. Aiyuk is the most talented receiver of the group and it will be important for him to avoid any rookie receiver hurdles in order to play an important role in the offense early on.
During his senior season at Arizona State, Aiyuk led the country in yards after contact with 378 and was third in yards after the catch at 710. Kyle Shanahan now must shift his focus to finding even more creative ways to get the ball into Aiyuk's hands to create explosive plays.
While Aiyuk is the big name who will be counted on most to fill Samuel's shoes, this also should allow Jalen Hurd to play a bigger role initially.
The 49ers were excited about Hurd coming into last season, but a stress fracture in his back robbed Hurd of his rookie season.
Now medically cleared and participating in unofficial workouts, Hurd's health and availability will be of the utmost importance for the 49ers as Samuel works his way back.
After switching from running back to receiver in college to prolong his career, Hurd excelled out of the slot at Baylor and the 49ers hoped to use his versatility to confuse and carve up defenses. Hurd's ability to line up in the slot, in the backfield or take a short-yardage handoff makes him a matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators. His power and fearlessness have impressed Garoppolo and the 49ers early on in his tenure.
Aiyuk's playmaking ability and Hurd's versatility are two things the 49ers will have to utilize in spades to keep the offense clicking if Samuel misses extended time.
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But don't forget about Jauan Jennings.
The Tennessee product isn't your everyday seventh-round pick. Jennings was expected to be a third- or fourth-round pick, but poor NFL Scouting Combine scores coupled with a loaded draft class saw him slip all the way to the seventh round. That shouldn't bother the 49ers who have to love Jennings' big body and his ability to break tackles once he gets the ball in his hand.
Jennings had the third-highest-graded season in the SEC since 2018 and led all of Division 1 in missed tackles forced last season.
While Jennings doesn't have the speed of Aiyuk or the versatility of Hurd, Jennings' size, strong hands and YAC ability give the potential to play a role with Samuel out.
The sky is the limit for Samuel. He showed his vast potential during his rookie season and the recently retired Joe Staley said he believes Samuel could be the best receiver in the NFL.
It will be a big blow to the 49ers' offense if he is forced to miss an extended period of time.
But they have three young receivers who are capable of filling those shoes and now it's time for Aiyuk, Hurd and Jennings to step up.
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