Fantasy Breakdown: What Does The Deebo Samuel Injury Means For The 49ers
With Deebo Knocked Out, how San Francisco may Evolve
Even with all the uncertainty amid this most unusual offseason, unexpected injuries are bound to happen- particularly with players unable to attend organized team activities. Unfortunately, the 49ers suffered the first major blow, losing sophomore wide receiver Deebo Samuel to a Jones fracture that could sideline the emerging star for 12-16 weeks.
Samuel really began to emerge during the second half of San Francisco's march to the Super Bowl and he was trending towards WR2 territory in early 2020 fantasy football drafts. With the league currently planning to kick off the regular season as scheduled, Samuel is all but certain to miss a significant portion of the regular season and is looking like a candidate to open the season on the PUP list, which would preclude him from playing in San Francisco's first six games.
As the team's undisputed No. 1 wideout, Samuel's absence will cause Kyle Shanahan to have to adjust his playbook, which will have also immediate ramifications in fantasy football. With Emmanuel Sanders now in New Orleans, another 49ers receiver will have to step up to fill that void. Here are the candidates who will have the opportunity to emerge with a larger role this fall and how to approach them in fantasy football drafts.
After being selected with the 36th pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, Samuel was a surprise starter in Week 1 and never relinquished that role. Even after the Niners acquired Emmanuel Sanders ahead of Week 8, Samuel remained the club's primary target. In fact, Samuel's role only grew once Sanders was acquired.
Samuel sat Week 7 with a groin injury but that week off only invigorated his play. From that point forward, Samuel played 79.5% of San Francisco's snaps and looked like a star as both a receiver and runner. During San Francisco's final 10 contests, Samuel produced three 100-yard receiving games and scored five of his six touchdowns- three of which came as a runner.
Although the nine drops were disconcerting, Fantasy Data's Advanced Metrics told the story of a player who was emerging as a potential superstar. Samuel was a top-20 wideout in both yards per route run (2.37) and in contested catch completion percentage (6-of-12 contested targets). Most impressive for Samuel was that he ranked second among all NFL receivers with 2.31 fantasy points per target, which trailed only fellow stand-out Tennessee rookie A.J. Brown.
Replacing those numbers won't be easy for Kyle Shanahan but as a versatile offensive mind who adjusts his play-calling and depth chart to fit his players' talents, the 49ers have plenty of wide receiver candidates for expanded roles while Deebo recovers.
Few players have the explosive run-after-catch abilities that Deebo Samuel possesses, so filling that role will be next to impossible. Rather than try to put a player into an unfavorable spot, Shanahan is more likely to rely more upon oh his committee backfield led by Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman. Should he finally be healthy, change-of-pace option Jerick McKinnon could also finally see his first snaps in San Francisco.
The 49ers only used two tight ends on 19% of their snaps last season and 60% of those plays resulted in runs. Missing a No.1 receiver could mean even more opportunities for superstar TE George Kittle, who looks like a strong candidate to eclipse 130 targets. Sophomore TE Ross Dwelley didn't see many targets when Kittle was on the field, but could potentially emerge with some in the season's first half. Of course, Dwelley is well off the fantasy radar and one of the club's unproven wideouts is the best bet to make an early fantasy impact.
Brandon Aiyuk - Selected with the 25th overall pick in April's NFL Draft, Aiyuk posted a 92nd-percentile burst score at the NFL Combine and put up a 65/1192/8 stat line in his final year at Arizona State. Aiyuk has adequate size (6-0, 205) and profiles as a perimeter threat with excellent run-after-catch ability, making him the most logical choice to be San Francisco's main outside wideout right out of the gate. The 49ers surrendered two additional picks to move up six spots to snag Aiyuk, and he's the best bet to lead the receiving corps in targets.
Dante Pettis - Pettis got most of the snaps in Samuel's spot when Samuel missed Week 7 but was quickly relegated to afterthought down the stretch. Some reports indicate that Shanahan was unimpressed with Pettis' effort and that led to precious few snaps opportunities to contribute. If Pettis gets a fresh start and escapes Shanahan's doghouse, he's got a good shot at rekindling some of that magic we saw during his solid 2018 rookie season.
Kendrick Bourne - Bourne actually led all San Francisco wideouts with a 121.2 QB rating when targeted last season and put up a surprising five TD grabs on 44 targets. Bourne logged the third-most snaps out of the San Francisco receiving corps but owed a lot of his success to the absence of Trent Taylor, who missed the entire 2019 season with a troublesome foot. Allegedly, Taylor is healthy and has been working out with QB Jimmy Garoppolo. There's a solid chance we simply see a rotation in the slot, but whoever is starting inside for San Fran on a week-to-week basis has WR4 value.
Jalen Hurd - A third-round pick in 2019, Hurd (back) also missed his entire rookie campaign but is back on the field participating in informal practice sessions. Hurd (6-5, 226) is huge and profiles as an outside possession receiver who could develop into a red-zone threat. Like many of Kyle Shanahan's draft targets, Hurd is versatile enough to play all over the field and even contribute as a ball-carrier but he's well off the fantasy radar and the lack of organized team activities will make it difficult for him to compete with experienced veterans.
Jauan Jennings - Jennings bombed at the Combine, posting a molasses-slow 4.72 40-yard dash, which led to a 32nd-percentile speed score. Even worse, Jennings' 2nd-percentile burst score is among the worst ever seen for a player who actually made a lot of big plays and forced a lot of missed tackles at Tennessee. Jennings (6-3, 215) has good size but will have a lot of work to do to earn rookie snaps as a seventh-round rookie in a crowded receiving corps.
Richie James - Another casualty of an offseason injury, James broke his wrist while training away from the team and could miss a significant portion of the summer. Coming off of a rookie season in which he only saw 10 targets, James will have a hard time emerging with any significant role while he loses valuable reps in an open competition for playing time in August.
Travis Benjamin - A 30-year old veteran, Benjamin has seen his numbers steadily decline since commanding an impressive 125 targets with Cleveland way back in 2015. Now simply just a one-trick pony as a little-used deep threat with declining speed, Benjamin will have a tough time making San Francisco's roster.
Additionally, Shanahan could look to boost his depth via a pair of veteran free agents who come with a lot of talent but potential headaches. Antonio Brown and Josh Gordon are both more than capable of playing the WR1 role and would undoubtedly relish a chance at redemption with a Super Bowl contending team. Gordon, of course, just applied to be reinstated, so he must clear that obstacle, first. Brown, meanwhile, may be facing league disciple after a tumultuous run of off-the-field incidents. While signing either of these veterans is unlikely, it would certainly make headlines around the league.
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Jody is a member of both the Pro Football Writer's of America (PFWA) and Fantasy Sports Writer's Association (FSWA) and has been covering the NFL and fantasy football for over a decade. Jody won FantasyPro's Most Accurate Expert contest and also garnered the FSTA's accuracy award in 2012. A Houston native, Jody has covered the Texans locally since 2016 for both digital and radio audiences. Past writing stops include CBS Sportsline, Gridiron Experts, Pro Football Focus, Fanball, FantasyPro's. Jody is also a frequent guest on SiriusXM and Houston radio and his work regularly appears in print on newsstands each summer.