Deebo Samuel Isn’t a Wide Receiver or a Running Back. He’s a Skeleton Key.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Backfield tandems are often called “thunder and lightning.” Samuel is both packaged into one.

“A wide back. Wide receiver playing running back.”

That’s San Francisco 49ers wide receiver—er, wide back Deebo Samuel telling 49ers beat reporters what his position is. He says it with a laugh because he knows how silly it sounds. Samuel doesn’t play wide back—that isn’t even a thing. But Samuel doesn’t really play wide receiver, either. Nor running back. He’s just his own thing, and he can call it whatever he likes.

Question to Deebo Samuel: “If you were to meet someone and they asked you what position you played, what would you say?”Answer: “Wide back. Wide receiver playing running back.”All Pro Wide Back.

— Field Yates (@FieldYates) January 14, 2022

There is no player more multiple, nor as foundational to the multiplicity of his offense, than Samuel. What he does for San Francisco lands squarely in uncharted territory; he breaks the rules of offensive structure and defensive game-planning. None of us understands precisely how Deebo Samuel works—except for maybe that grinning All-Pro wide back himself.

It starts with the build. When you think “wide receiver,” a player of Samuel’s build never comes to mind. You think of Davante Adams and Justin Jefferson, who are both roughly 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, slender, smooth, with long strides that gobble up ground. You think of Mike Evans and Mike Williams: Skyscrapers with Inspector Gadget arms and hands like magnets. You don’t think of the 6-foot, 215 pounds, and 31-inch arms that belong to Samuel. Among Samuel’s best athletic comparisons on MockDraftable are cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, running back Damien Harris, linebacker Devin Bush, and safety Siran Neal.

So when defenders see him, they aren’t ready for what comes next. Samuel runs like the Road Runner, with his feet blurring underneath him while his upper body barely moves—and like the Road Runner, when Samuel decides to go, he goes. He breaks more ankles than any player in the league with his instantaneous acceleration, leaving stunned defenders grasping at air as he turns corners and uncovers yardage that other receivers would never be able to find.

In those rare moments when defenders get a workable angle on Samuel, they discover that the irregularities don’t stop there. Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch found this out during wild-card weekend, when he wrapped up Samuel coming across the middle of the field, dropped his hips, and went to toss Samuel back, away from the line of gain. Only … Samuel didn’t move.

This is a perfect example of Samuel’s confounding skill set. You can see the confusion in Vander Esch’s body when he gives Samuel that hearty tug and Samuel doesn’t even lose his balance. That 6-foot, 215-pound build? It means there’s a lot of mass, and a lot of power, built into Samuel’s lower half. Samuel is smoke up until the moment he decides to be stone. Backfield tandems are often called thunder and lightning: Samuel is both packaged into one.

His density and toughness help Samuel finish his runs, but even more importantly, they make him one of the league’s best receivers over the middle of the field. The middle is where Kyle Shanahan’s offense thrives, especially when Jimmy Garoppolo is at the helm. Play-action fakes and heavy uses of pre-snap motion pull linebackers down toward the line of scrimmage, and Garoppolo’s quick trigger and fearless play style allow him to hit those quick windows that open behind those linebackers. We can see, in Samuel’s target distribution relative to other receivers, just how heavily he’s used in this area of the field.

But to win as a receiver over the middle of the field, you must be able to endure heavy punishment. Against the Garoppolo offense, safeties lurk just above that middle hole, ready to close downhill and punish receivers working into the gap. Samuel, frankly, doesn’t care. He’s built too thick and plays too tough to be afraid of closing safeties—and if they whiff in the slightest, Samuel has the acceleration necessary to punish that miss with an explosive gain.

And that’s just what he is physically. More than a few mind-bending athletes have come before Samuel, and several more will come after. His path was paved by gadget players of highlight reel glory, like Percy Harvin and Tavon Austin—and those players had more big-play speed and elusiveness than Samuel does. But Samuel didn’t come into the league as a gadget weapon and endeavor to fill out a traditional role: He entered the league as a bona fide wideout, and has all the skills that the position demands.

Take yet another Samuel catch-and-run on an intermediate, in-breaking route. It’s easy to see the contact balance and catch through contact, as usual—but this is a route the Rams are expecting Samuel to run and Jimmy to throw. Samuel clears the jam from safety Taylor Rapp, but knows his route has gone deeper and taken longer to break than Garoppolo envisioned—so he comes tight around Rapp and drives back downfield for the football, beating the closing safety Jordan Fuller to the catch point.

This is football intelligence. NFL players learn it over time—and examples of it are all over Samuel’s film. He’s constantly working back to Garoppolo on crossing patterns, inherently aware of the limitations of Garoppolo’s weak arm and accordingly fighting to make these throws shorter and easier for his passer.

And as a ballcarrier, all of Samuel’s physical traits—his acceleration, his contact balance, his toughness—are delightful. But none of it would matter if Samuel didn’t have that inherent knack for space, timing, and angles. Samuel’s explosiveness is magnified by how well he manipulates tacklers who should have angles on stopping him. We can watch him pick on Fuller again, as the Rams safety takes what would be a good angle for 99 percent of the league’s receivers—and then realizes, far too late, that Samuel can break that angle and turn upfield.

The speed with which Samuel transitions from a ball catcher to a ballcarrier is second to none. It costs him a drop or two across the course of the season, but the second his hands hit leather, Samuel’s mind is two steps ahead of the incoming tackler.

To this point, we have nicely detailed the player that Samuel is. He is without compare, and his singular skill set make him one of the league’s most effective receivers. Defenders aren’t really sure how to take him down—or whether they’re even capable of it in one-on-one space situations. He fits like a glove in Shanahan’s passing attack. All of this is reflected in Samuel’s numbers, too. Through the first nine weeks of the season, he was second in the league in receiving yards, third in yards per reception, and seventh in total targets.

And then he just became a running back.

That whole “he’s built like a running back” thing? Shanahan and the 49ers saw that and just made him a running back. In a blink, Samuel’s distribution of touches got flipped on its head. Since Week 10, Samuel has seen more targets than he’s seen handoffs in only one game.

Samuel isn’t a full running back, of course—he’s taking only about 25 percent of his snaps in the backfield, and when the 49ers have him in the backfield, they’re heavily tipping their hand that they’re handing the ball off: Next Gen Stats counts them as running on 82 percent of regular-season plays with Samuel in the backfield. But so far, that doesn’t seem to matter much. On plays with Samuel aligned in the backfield, PFF has the 49ers averaging .346 expected points added per play; on those plays in which he takes the handoff, they’re at .472. For perspective, the best passing offense in the league belonged to the Green Bay Packers, at .220 EPA per dropback.

That Shanahan can do this is obnoxious. That Samuel can do this is also obnoxious. It’s fictitious, absurd, unable to be reconciled with the constraints of reality. The 49ers put a wide receiver in the backfield and broke defenses. That takes a special coach, a special player, and a perfect marriage between the two.

The Niners’ favorite run with Samuel is outside zone—it’s pretty much Shanahan’s favorite run in any context. But they like to get to outside zone with Samuel from split-back gun, a difficult formation for defenses to match given the variety of runs an offense can execute from it. This gets Samuel outside the tackle box and up against cornerbacks, where his physicality will be most effective—but it also requires that Samuel run with patience and vision, to maximize the angles and timing of his blockers.

On this run, the Rams get safety Terrell Burgess filling the alley—but Samuel sees him coming, steps hard into the hole, and then bounces outside, pulling Burgess into traffic and also displacing Leonard Floyd, who is supposed to be holding the edge and keeping Samuel inside. That’s running back–esque behavior right there, and somehow, it’s been coded into a wide receiver’s brain.

Because the Niners love running outside zone with Samuel, they can also invite and punish overaggressiveness from opposing defenses by calling split zone. Here, Samuel and the offensive line initially threaten an outside zone path, before Samuel cuts hard against the offensive line’s flow and takes the alley generated by a crushing split zone block from fullback Kyle Juszczyk.

Watch Samuel get vertical to pull closing safety Damontae Kazee downfield, and then bounce to the outside at the final second and finish through contact to complete the run with dirty yardage. Take off the numbers and the nameplates, and you could convince any football fan or coach that the dude carrying the football here plays running back. He does not!

It is difficult to imagine how Samuel developed this myriad of instincts. It’s even more difficult to imagine another player doing it anytime soon. That’s the true inimitability of Samuel, a player who opposing front offices will no doubt attempt to replicate this season. It’s not that he’s so explosive (even though he is) or so physical (even though he is) or so smart (even though he is). It’s not even that he’s a blend of all of those things. It’s that he is superlative in all areas, and somehow able to string all of those elite skills into one amorphous, superstar play style. He’s a phase-shifter, a rule breaker. He’s effortlessly everything all at once.

And, on top of all that, he’s just flat-out cool. He gets the ball 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and you still get the feeling he’s about to score. If PFF had an “embarrassed defenders per play” metric, he’d lead the league. The coolest offense in the NFL features him in such a way that no other superstar player could be shoehorned into his role. Davante Adams, Cooper Kupp, Justin Jefferson—none of them could do what Samuel does. There is one Deebo Samuel, and there are zero Close to Deebo Samuels or Discount Deebo Samuels or Could Become Deebo Samuels. There is no Next Deebo—there is just Deebo, and every game the 49ers get in the playoffs is another opportunity for us to watch that singular player.

Read more: