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"Just going through the tape, it was, 'Look how sluggish and, like, how bad you look on tape.'" During a lengthy film session with Deebo Samuel this offseason, Kyle Shanahan didn't hold anything back. After a breakout 2021 season, Samuel struggled to find his form in 2022. He finished as the WR27 in points per game, but his availability wasn't a strong suit. He concluded the year as the WR37 overall, and relative to his lofty Average Draft Position following a WR3 overall finish, he was one of the most disappointing fantasy performers in 2022. Fantasy managers expect a bounce-back year, with his ADP sitting at WR16.
However, three signs point to another disappointing finish for the former All-Pro wideout.
Brandon Aiyuk's Emergence
Brandon Aiyuk finished as the WR15 overall and WR24 in points per game in 2022. He saw an uptick in nearly every metric, including targets, receptions, yards, touchdowns, catch percentage, and yards before the catch. He led the team in raw targets and targets per game, increasing his target share from 17.7% in 2021 to 22.4% in 2022. His targets per game rose from 4.85 in 2021 to over six in 2022. Aiyuk's 2022 season was a true breakout, even considering various factors. Aiyuk's breakout came on the back of improvements on short routes. In 2021, he was one of the best intermediate threats in the game. He constantly won on digs and out routes between 10 and 20 yards, the primary area where Garoppolo targeted him. In 2022, Aiyuk was still one of the best intermediate threats in the NFL, but his ability to beat cornerbacks quickly made him one of the top receivers on underneath routes. Shanahan also prioritized using Aiyuk in the screen game, allowing him to work with the ball in his hands.
His emergence was significant, but early reports suggest he's elevating his game even more heading into 2023. "I told him after the meeting, 'It's just crazy how much more efficient and explosive you look now,'" Kyle Juszczyk said following OTAs. For a player with impressive efficiency and explosiveness in 2022, these observations could indicate an explosive breakout and further confirm that Aiyuk is the No. 1 receiver for the 49ers. But what does that mean for Samuel?
His usage was significantly different in 2022 compared to 2021. In his breakout year, he saw downfield targets (10+ yards or more) more than a third of the time. Last year, that number decreased to less than a fourth of the time. The 49ers relegated Samuel to an underneath target role due to Aiyuk's ability to dominate the intermediate areas of the field and Shanahan's capacity to create explosives without a high percentage of targets in the deep field areas. This shift, combined with the lower efficiency after the catch (he averaged 12.1 and 10.0 yards after the catch in 2020 and 2021, respectively, with that number decreasing to 8.8 in 2022), lowered his fantasy ceiling. Furthermore, the unsustainable 14 total touchdowns from the 2021 breakout year - his career average in the other three years is four touchdowns - provide a reason to believe that Samuel's All-Pro season may be an outlier.
Christian McCaffrey's Arrival
The foundation of Samuel's outstanding 2021 performance was his rushing usage. He added 84.5 fantasy points from rushing output, boosting his fantasy finish from WR11 to WR3 overall. While that seemed sustainable and indicative of future use, the 49ers seized the opportunity to acquire Christian McCaffrey following Week 6 of the 2022 season. It's easy to speculate that move was due to the absence of Elijah Mitchell. The 49ers' rush EPA in Weeks 1-6 ranked 25th in the league. The team that based most of their offensive identity on running the ball couldn't actually run the ball effectively. Samuel's carries declined significantly over that stretch, with nine in Weeks 2 and 3 combined before three straight weeks of just two carries.
Following McCaffrey's arrival, the 49ers ranked second in the league in rush EPA, only trailing behind the Chiefs. Concurrently, the 49ers began lining Samuel up as a wideout more often. Mitchell returned for Weeks 10-12, and in that span, Samuel saw just 18 backfield snaps. In the six regular-season games that Mitchell, McCaffrey, and Samuel were all healthy, Samuel saw 36 backfield snaps. Samuel averaged nearly eight backfield snaps during his breakout 2021 season. This alteration in his usage resulted in a more than 50% decrease in fantasy points from rushing usage. In the seven regular-season games McCaffrey and Samuel were active together, Samuel saw 23 carries for 94 yards. When including the three playoff games, Samuel had 36 carries for 128 yards. If you extrapolate that ten-game sample to a 17-game season, Samuel would have 218 yards on the ground.
25% of Samuel's 2021 fantasy points came from rushing output. With that number seemingly on a steady decline due to McCaffrey's presence in the offense and Elijah Mitchell's current clean bill of health, it's unlikely that fantasy managers will ever see a top-five fantasy output from Samuel again.
The Quarterback Uncertainty
"We have three guys who can play, there's only one spot, and we have a good team." Kyle Shanahan explained that the quarterback position isn't set in stone, albeit while confirming that Brock Purdy is the clubhouse leader. With Purdy, the "Big Four" pass-catchers performed worse than with the combination of Lance/Garoppolo.
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