To use his word, Deebo Samuel was, "awful" last year. That's pretty much true, but it's not all his fault.
Statistically, we know Deebo is capable of more than the 864 scrimmage yards and the 5 touchdowns he produced in 2022. We've seen it with our own eyes. Circumstances and usage combined to sap the potential of one of the NFL's most versatile weapons.
Samuel himself admitted that his dissatisfaction with his contract and subsequent trade request distracted him and took away from his offseason preparation. That's squarely on his shoulders. Regardless of what is going on around them, players are expected to be professionals and prepare for the upcoming season accordingly. Obviously that did not happen.
Perhaps as a result of that unpreparedness, Kyle Shanahan was way more conservative with Deebo Samuel than we saw in the historic 2021 season. Almost half of Samuel's 56 catches last year came behind the line of scrimmage. As a result, his average depth of target (ADOT) was just 4.4 yards. Compare that to 2021, when Deebo's ADOT was 8.3 yards past the line of scrimmage. It's little wonder he wasn't able to produce through the air the way he did on his way to over 1,400 yards.
All of the 49ers' skill players possess incredible abilities after the catch. To a man, they almost never get taken down by the first defender. That's exactly why they should be targeted deeper down the field, however. If the first tackle they break is a defensive back, there's a good chance that play is going for a touchdown - regardless of where the team is on the field. If the first tackle they break is a defensive lineman or a linebacker, it's way more difficult to break those big plays - and those plays are what the offense is built around.
Kyle Shanahan and Deebo Samuel need each other. Deebo needs Shanahan to overcome his average route-running so that he can get into the open field and do what he does best. Shanahan needs Samuel to squeeze every last yard out of the plays that are called. Especially considering what the 49ers are paying him.
It's one thing for a player to be inconsistent on a rookie contract. It's another when that player is getting paid at or near the market rate at his position. In a salary cap league, teams needs their premium players to produce at a level commensurate with their contract because their high salary makes depth more difficult. When your highest paid stars can't be counted on to play like stars every single week, the team falls apart.
Luckily, both Shanahan and Samuel are smart enough to realize this. In fact they may already have done just that.
"Me and Kyle had a long meeting the other day," Deebo said, "We watched tape, we talked about it, we put it behind us. Just going through the tape and just looking how sluggish and how bad it looked on tape. Just reflecting on the last offseason, it kind of played a big role in that. I will never put anything like that on tape again.”
For all our sakes, let's hope that's right.