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Running back Deebo Samuel. It looks like a typo, but during the past two weeks, Samuel has rushed for 115 yards and 2 scores on 13 carries. With a season total of 19 attempts for 137 yards and 3 touchdowns, Samuel is the most efficient producer in the 49ers' backfield, especially during the past two weeks.
It took Elijah Mitchell 27 carries to earn 91 yards against the Rams and Jeff Wilson needed 19 carries for 50 yards against the Jaguars — Samuel had nearly 20 more yards and Wilson in the same game and with less than half the attempts.
This doesn't mean that Samuel is the best running back on the 49ers, although he might be the best fantasy running back — at least for this year or until NFL defenses address how to contain what may become a new variation of the long-desired trend for wide receivers to earn work from the backfield. Let's not forget Tavon Austin and if we're really being honest, Marshall Faulk and Reggie Bush could have been wide receivers. And before them, Eric Metcalf began his career as a runner but finished as a run-and-shoot wide receiver.
The NFL has always been intrigued with players who can blur the lines between positions. The reason it hasn't happened more often is that most of the players who have shown the skills to play multiple positions at the college level lack something to play multiple roles at a high level in the NFL.
Remember Houston Texans H-Back James Casey? At Rice, he demonstrated facility at running back, wide receiver, and tight end. Casey had moments doing all three in the NFL but he wasn't strong enough to do the gritty work as an inline tight end and he wasn't fast enough to beat defensive backs in the vertical game (patterns of at least 20 yards). There are only so many times an offensive coordinator can get him mismatched in space against a linebacker without opponents adjusting.
The best "positionless player" of the past 20 years was Aaron Hernandez. He was a rare player who could hold up as an inline blocker, display short-area quickness and vision as a runner between the tackles, and win outside against cornerbacks as a detached receiver. Travis Kelce has delivered hints of this versatility and might have been used as such if Bill Belichick had Kelce in New England, but there aren't any others you can place in the same conversation.
While the NFL may never have more than 1-2 truly positionless players at one time during a given decade (and that's a generous timeline), it will continue to experiment with blurring the lines between positions because a player who can present a mismatch in more than one positional role can break down a defense in two important ways.
The first is mismatches. Defensive coverage schemes are often based on the alignment of the offense and much of the logic behind this is to pair comparable athletes to the opposition: Cornerbacks with receivers, defensive linemen to offensive linemen, and safeties and linebackers to backs and tight ends. When you can place a tight end or receiver in a running back's spot or a running back in a receiver's position, it can lead to an athletic advantage for the offensive player.
The second is blow assignments. When defenses play zone or a combination of man and zone, the alignment of players in positions that aren't their primary role can generate confusion with assignments. Do you treat Deebo Samuel as a wide receiver or runner? Because the answer to this question can depend on his alignment, where he shifts, and the alignment of 10 other offensive players, the factors to answer this question in less than 5-10 seconds and defenses accurately communicating what to do is why you see easy-looking big plays.
This touchdown pass to Justin Jefferson on an option route from the backfield is a good example.
Hmmmm.... https://t.co/Fc94Ac4ay7— Mark SchofieldðŸ‚ (@MarkSchofield) November 21, 2021
Jefferson's option route and Kelce's use in the backfield in the green zone are among dozens of examples of teams blurring the lines with a player's role this year. However, Samuel and Patterson are the leading figureheads of the "positionless athlete" in the NFL today.
Expect to hear a lot about it and for the trend to continue. Don't expect it to be widespread to the extent that resident cult leader Sigmund Bloom is proselytizing the utopian ideal of a day where position labels are meaningless (Ok, I can't promise that...which is why we love him).
The fact that Patterson is a nine-year NFL veteran on his fifth team tells you that figuring out how to optimize a positionless athlete is easier said than done. Belichick promised Patterson he'd be the one to make it happen in 2018 but if you look at the data, he didn't break significantly more ground in this area than the Raiders did the year prior.
The Patriots and Raiders used Patterson as an "either/or" player more often than a "both" player — either a running back as a ballcarrier or a vertical threat as a receiver. This didn't blur the lines enough to place opposing defenses in binds. Yes, you'll find plays in Oakland and New England where the coaches blurred those lines but they often schemed plays specifically for Patterson. Schemed plays have a shorter shelf life of effectiveness if the player doesn't have a versatile enough role in the playbook.
Arthur Smith has gotten more out of Patterson as an outlet on plays that aren't always schemed specifically for Patterson and that has been one of the differences. It also shouldn't be lost on anyone that Atlanta is lacking healthy and experienced talent, which generates a demand for everything Patterson can muster as a weapon that neither the Raiders nor the Patriots needed by comparison.
Although the perception of the two players may differ, Samuel is not that much different than Patterson. Samuel has been a limited route runner during his career and he's had some difficulty defeating press coverage earlier in his career. Like Patterson, he's skilled at the catch-point and fantastic as a runner and return specialist.
Patterson was among the best open-field runners I've ever scouted during my 17 years of studying talent. When he began his career in Minnesota, he had some long gains as a rookie playing in the Vikings' backfield. It's not a coincidence that they came on toss plays. The NFL won't allow this play to be shown directly on the site, but this link will take you to YouTube where I have this 67-yard touchdown run queued up.
Belichick may be a genius but using Patterson on toss plays from the backfield wasn't his original idea, he just did his due diligence. The Raiders also used Patterson on Toss and it's exactly what the 49ers are doing with Samuel.
As I've shared over the years, running back is the most misunderstood position in football. The basic reason is the wide range of "what works" for a ground game.
Top running back talents can range in size and athletic ability comparable to a cornerback all the way to a defensive end. Top running back producers can either have the full complement of skills to run every type of blocking scheme and make their offensive line better or they do a limited number of things at a high level and have a great supporting cast and scheme to exploit these skills.
The more limited the back, the more versatile and skilled the surrounding talent must be for that back to deliver competent production.
Toss is a great example of a play that works great for less refined running backs paired with talented support. This is an outside run by design that gives the back a long runway into the crease. When they hit this crease, they are at full speed, heading downhill, and the demands to manipulate blocking before they hit the hole are minimal.
This requires athletic and skilled blockers, especially at tackle, tight end, and fullback. The 49ers have all-world players at each position in Kyle Jusczyck, George Kittle, and Trent Williams — arguably the best in the game, especially as run blockers, at all three spots. Most teams with one of these All-Pro talents would have at least moderate success with the toss play.
For the 49ers, Toss is far and away, the team's best running play. Because they have dominant players at the three key positions, it's a staple play for the offense and few teams can run this play as frequently with their level of success. Add to the fact that Charlie Woerner is also a competent blocking tight end and it expands when and how they can run it.
Watch how Williams, Woerner, and Jusczyck dominate their assignments to generate a lane for Samuel. Williams (No. 71) sends his assignment about five yards off his spot and Samuel earns a huge cutback lane in the hole that is not much different from what he'd see if he were returning a punt through a crowded lane by returner standards.
This was one of the few plays where Samuel even had to make a cut in the hole. Most of his runs — and even Mitchell's runs on toss — require no change in pace, variation of stride length, or cuts. They are free to build up speed and hit the lane as fast as they can.
Deebo breaks for a 25 yard touchdown— Laurie Fitzpatrick (@LaurieFitzptrck) November 21, 2021
SF up 10-0 pic.twitter.com/zr529FcVLt
You'll also notice on two of these plays, Trey Sermon is used as a receiver motioning across the backfield pre-snap. The 49ers are not only leveraging the speed and punt return skills of Samuel on a play design that is as close to a punt return from the backfield as an offense can simulate, but it also throws in the potential constraint of the true running back used as a receiver on a jet sweep or a deep play-action pass on a wheel or bullet route.
This added flavor creates enough for the opposing defense to take into account that it can slow their processing by as much as a step. That difference in reaction time to account for the back can enhance the outcome of the play in San Francisco's favor.
Samuel and the 49ers Outlook
The 49ers have a dominant perimeter ground game but no NFL team can win on this alone because the days of the Packers' Power Sweep pummelling opposing defenses into submission are gone. The 49ers can beat some teams on the basis of the perimeter ground game but it can't win every game with one bread-and-butter play.
Samuel has become more viable as a legitimate backfield option because Brandon Aiyuk is out of Shanahan's doghouse. Aiyuk's ability to make plays on quick slants and routes that break into the middle of the field forces linebackers and safeties to account for the quick play-action pass that will be thrown behind them if the play isn't a run. Without Aiyuk on the field, Samuel's use as a running back beyond 1-2 looks per game was easier to defend.
The 49ers' ground game is predicated on outside speed to its benefit and detriment. Jerrick McKinnon, Tevin Coleman, Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert, and Mitchell are all perimeter runners with great speed. Breida and Mostert were by far the most complete players at their positions but injuries limited their opportunities.
Jeff Wilson and Trey Sermon both ran 4.57-second, 40-yard dash times pre-draft. They are more than fast enough to produce in the offense but they are the running back equivalent of Pit Bulls entering a dog show restricted to Greyhounds and trainers of Greyhounds who only see this breed as worthwhile. The 49ers have been inconsistent, at best, when running inside, something that Breida and Mostert could do.
As long as Jusczyck, Kittle, Williams, and Aiyuk remain healthy, there's little reason the 49ers won't use Samuel in the backfield 8-10 times a game. The support staff for this play is intact and uniquely qualified to run this play with impunity. The frequency of Samuel's use depends on Mitchell. As long as Mitchell is hurt or struggles inside, the more likely you'll see 8-10 touches per game from Samuel. If Mitchell returns and performs well inside, Samuel may only see 3-5 touches from the backfield.
I'm betting on Samuel earning the Patterson role for the remainder of the year, which means closer to 8-10 touches. This means Aiyuk's recent elevation in production should remain steady, if not challenge Samuel and Kittle for the lead in receiving production during this stretch run.