The 49ers stunned the league with their unconventional use of third-year receiver Deebo Samuel on their road to a surprise appearance in the NFC title game. Including the playoffs, the South Carolina alum played in the backfield as a typical running back.
The strategy isn’t groundbreaking in and of itself. It’s about the skill and the conditions at hand. Teams have used receivers in a similar way in the past. Such as the Packers in the mid-2010s with Ty Montgomery and Randall Cobb. However, Samuel is a one-of-a-kind individual, making any attempt to duplicate his work easy to conceive.
But extremely difficult to perform. Of course, this will not and did not deter teams from attempting. Similar techniques were applied around the league as Samuel and Patterson’s continuous success gained more notice.
Samuel received the spotlight, another player had a similarly good season in 2021. Cordarrelle Patterson, who had spent his nine-year career mostly as a receiver and return specialist. Unfortunately, because he was on a terrible Atlanta team. His efforts went unnoticed.
However, in 16 games with the Falcons, the 30-year-old veteran had his finest offensive season to date. Running for 618 yards and six touchdowns on 153 runs while also catching 52 of his 69 targets.
The Lions did it with rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who scored on a draw play against the Seahawks in Week 17 for a 27-yard touchdown. On a smaller scale, the Dolphins did it with Jaylen Waddle, another rookie pass catcher.
In 2021, he only carried the ball twice, whereas St. Brown received seven touches. However, with the advent of new head coach Mike McDaniel—the man who helped organize Samuel’s breakout—he will likely get more action out of the backfield.
While it’s a tired cliché, the NFL is, in fact, a copycat league. As a result, some teams will likely try to uncover their own Deebo Samuel this summer, while others will explore their squads in the same manner—only to learn that such talent does not grow on trees.
However, perhaps one or two teams will be an exception to the rule and have equal or even more success with Samuel than the 49ers did this season. After all, according to Pro Football Focus, he only played seven snaps in the backfield before Week 10. After that, it increased to about 10 snaps per week on average, with double-digit totals in each of the team’s final five games.