He’s the ultimate plug-in hybrid, a player so versatile and dynamic, so explosive and electric, that he can’t be defined by traditional NFL labels and roles.
“Wide-back,” Deebo Samuel said with a laugh, when asked to name his position with the San Francisco 49ers. “A wide receiver playing running back.”
The 6-foot, 215-pound Samuel, a third-year pro out of South Carolina, hasn’t revolutionized the game — there are plenty of wideouts who have taken handoffs in the backfield and running backs who have flexed out to the slot or wideout to catch passes.
But his rare combination of speed, power, agility, acceleration and vice-grip-like hands — which helped Samuel rack up 1,770 yards from scrimmage this season, third-most in the NFL — have pushed the limits of what is possible on an NFL field.
“There’s not another receiver in this league who plays like me and can do the things I do,” Samuel said Friday during a videoconference, answering why he doesn’t spend much time analyzing other NFL wideouts. “So I don’t see the need to watch anybody who doesn’t do the things I do.”
Samuel, 26, is not a Tavon Austin type, a small, speedy receiver whose run plays are limited to jet sweeps and reverses. He lines up in the backfield and has the brute strength to run between the tackles and punish defenders.
Though he’s thicker and shorter than most NFL receivers, Samuel can outjump defensive backs for the ball and is fast and elusive enough to have averaged a league-high 10.4 yards after catch this season, a full three yards more than any other receiver.
“I mean, that’s a game plan in itself,” Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey said, when asked what the Rams need to do to slow Deebo. “I know we have Cooper Kupp, who is one of, if not the most dominant, offensive players in the league, but Deebo is right in that conversation with him.
“When Deebo has the ball in his hands ... it could be a touchdown on any single play.”
George Kittle, 49ers tight end, on teammate Deebo Samuel
“He’s a guy who does everything for their team. He plays receiver, running back, slot … whatever they ask him to do, he’s able to do at a high level. We have to find ways to limit him and his physicality, his yards after contact, his yards after catch, to put ourselves in a position to be victorious.”
Three of the NFL’s top teams — the Rams, Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers — couldn’t slow Deebo the three weeks.
Samuel caught four passes for 95 yards, rushed eight times for 45 yards and one touchdown and even threw a 24-yard touchdown pass in a 27-24 overtime win over the Rams in a Jan. 9 regular-season finale that secured a playoff spot for the 49ers.
In a 23-17 NFC wild-card victory at Dallas on Jan. 16, Samuel rushed 10 times for 72 yards — 26 of them on an electrifying, game-turning scoring run in the third quarter — and caught three passes for 38 yards.
Samuel generated 142 yards on 15 touches in a 13-10 divisional-round upset of Green Bay at frigid, snowy Lambeau Field last weekend — 39 yards on 10 carries, 44 yards on three catches and 59 yards on two kickoff returns — and converted a huge first down on a third-and-seven on the 49ers’ last-minute winning drive.
“He’s delivered when the stakes are highest,” San Francisco tight end George Kittle said. “When Deebo has the ball in his hands, whether it’s tossed, handed off or thrown to him, it could be a touchdown on any single play.”
Samuel is accustomed to carrying a heavy workload. At Chapman High School in Inman, S.C., he played every skill position — quarterback, running back, all four receiver spots — as well as cornerback, free safety, edge rusher and kickoff returner.
Mark Hodge, his high school coach, developed a poster-board system to move Samuel around the field — a picture of school principal Ty Dawkins for quarterback, a Minnesota Vikings logo (Adrian Peterson starred at the time) for running back, Big Bird (the yellow feathery creature) for Y receiver, and so on.
“One game he scored six touchdowns, one on defense, one on a kickoff return and four at two or three positions on offense,” Hodge said. “He didn’t come off the field much.”
Hodge knew Samuel was a special talent. Just how special became apparent one summer day in 2013, when former Chicago Bears defensive back D.J. Moore, whom Hodge had coached at Broome High School in Spartanburg, S.C., was on hand for seven-on-seven drills.
“We were playing some really quality people, and Deebo was just dominating,” Hodge said. “D.J. came up to me and said, ‘He’s better now than some of the guys I cover in the NFL today.’ And that was as a high school senior.”
Samuel led Chapman to the state 3-A semifinals as a senior and racked up 2,751 yards receiving, 898 yards rushing and a school-record 53 touchdowns in high school.
Injuries slowed Samuel in college — he missed much of the 2015 season because of a hamstring strain and most of 2017 because of a broken leg — and he rushed only 25 times in four years at South Carolina.
Samuel put up solid but not spectacular numbers as a senior, catching 62 passes for 882 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2018, but the 49ers loved his vision, running ability, physicality on screen plays and crossing routes and saw enough potential to select him in the second round (36th overall) in 2019.
“It was abnormal how physical he was, even when there was nowhere to go,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “Guys run hard, but when he had nowhere to go, he looked for someone to impose his will on before he finished everything.”
Samuel rushed 22 times — total — in his first two NFL seasons and had only eight carries through eight games this season. That's when Shanahan and offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel, with the 49ers struggling with a 3-5 record, began expanding Samuel's role in a 31-10 win over the Rams in Week 10.
Samuel caught five passes for 97 yards and a touchdown and ran five times for 36 yards and a touchdown in Levi’s Stadium that day, and he has rushed 68 times for 418 yards and seven touchdowns in nine games since, including a career-high 10 carries in each of the two playoff wins.
Samuel finished the regular season with 77 receptions for 1,405 yards and six touchdowns, an NFL-leading 18.2 yards per catch, and 59 carries for 365 yards and eight touchdowns, earning first-team All-Pro honors as a receiver.
“This is uncharted territory for all of us, the coaching staff and the player, and it’s something that you kind of feel your way through,” McDaniel said. “It’s a natural progression. Out of necessity, we found different ways to get him the ball, and to his credit, he’s owning a lot of positions right now.”
McDaniel describes Samuel as “fearless and fast, big and hard to tackle,” and 49ers edge rusher Nick Bosa called him “a savage football player, a beast,” all attributes that make Deebo so good … and so susceptible to injury.
Samuel does most of his work as a receiver over the middle, a treacherous area for any pass-catcher, and the more he carries the ball as a running back, the more hits he absorbs.
“I wouldn’t say I’m taking punishment — I think I’m out there delivering the blows,” Samuel said Friday. “It’s just the physical mindset this team has, that one person is not going to bring us down, and if it comes down to that point, just punish the guy in front of you.”
That mindset didn’t prevent Samuel from suffering a stinger on a crunching blow to his shoulder on a 12-yard catch in the third quarter of the Green Bay game. Samuel also hopped off the field on his left leg after injuring his right ankle on his big third-down run in the final minute.
“I was hurting all game,” Samuel said afterward. “But I’ll be all right.”
He was not listed on the 49ers' injury report Friday, so he'll be back in the spotlight at SoFi Stadium.
Hodge was in Lambeau Field with his two sons last weekend, and he spoke with Deebo on the sideline before the game, marveling at how his former player is doing things in the NFL that he did in high school; how he’s combining “an old-school, physical run mentality with a new-age vision on how to do it.”
Hodge knew Samuel had it in him.
“When you put all the things together, his DNA, his physical makeup, his body structure and mass, his intelligence and competitiveness, Deebo is very unique,” Hodge said.
“From some of the catches and speed sweeps, [the 49ers] figured out that when the ball is in his hands, he’s a high-level running back. So it wasn’t surprising. It was just, did anyone have the guts to actually do it? Coach Shanahan did.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.