No one can take away what Deebo Samuel did in the 2021 season. The San Francisco 49ers WR was truly elite and arguably the single best value in fantasy football that season. There’s also no denying he severely disappointed in 2022. Heading into the 2023 season, fantasy managers once again have Samuel ranked as a WR2, but is there a real chance he falls outside the top-24 WRs once again?
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We Know Deebo Samuel’s Upside
There’s no real sense in assessing Samuel’s ceiling — we know what it is. We saw it in 2021 when he totaled 1,770 yards from scrimmage and averaged 21.2 PPR fantasy points per game as the overall WR3.
Samuel has proven he has the talent to be an elite WR1. Not many wide receivers ever crest the threshold of 20 points per game. Samuel did it before, which means, at the very least, it’s possible he does so again.
What Is Deebo Samuel’s Downside?
In my older age, I’ve generally tried to be a more positive person. However, that doesn’t mean looking at everything through rose-colored glasses. Every player in the NFL has downside. For Samuel, the focus here is on whether another year outside the top 24 of fantasy wide receivers is coming.
We can start by playing a very simple game — one many of you played as a child. It’s called, “One of these things is not like the other.”
Here are Samuel’s fantasy finishes in each of the first four years of his career:
12.5 ppg, WR34
11.5 ppg, N/A (not enough games to qualify)
21.2 ppg, WR3
13.0 ppg, WR28
Which one of these things is not like the other?
Of course, merely having a spike season doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t happen again. We need to dig a little deeper to figure out what happened. Let’s do that.
Everything About Deebo Samuel’s 2021 Screams Outlier
The heading may have spoiled the conclusion, but you want to know why anyway, don’t you?
There’s no denying Samuel’s 2021 fantasy season is an outlier relative to the rest of his career. But that doesn’t necessarily mean his performance was also not repeatable.
The first thing you’ll notice is Samuel played 16 games. He battled injury and underperformance in 2020, making what he did in 2021 even more unexpected.
In those 16 games, Samuel obviously set a bunch of career highs. The most glaring outliers are his target share, which was 27.8% yards per target (11.7 — led the NFL), yards per route run, which was 3.24 (fourth in the league), and his absurd 6.5 yards after the catch per target.
The most glaring aspect of Samuel’s 2021 performance is his average depth of target. It was 8.1, 78th in the league. Despite this incredibly low aDOT, Samuel led the league with 18.2 yards per reception. His career average is 14.5, but last season, his yards per reception was 11.3.
Samuel was racking up yards after the catch at a completely unsustainable pace. Obviously, he was never going to do that again. But that doesn’t mean he needed to fall all the way outside of the top 24. So, how did that happen?
For starters, Samuel’s aDOT cratered. I know what you’re thinking — it was already low. Yes, somehow, it not only got lower but by a lot. Samuel’s 4.2 aDOT was outside the top 100. That’s just not a recipe for success, no matter how good a player is after the catch.
Samuel was still very good after the catch but averaged 5.1 yac per target, a decrease of 1.4. His yards per target dropped to 6.7 and yards per route run to 1.88. Essentially, Samuel has been the same type of player in three of the four years of his career.
How Likely Is Samuel To Finish Outside the Top-24 Fantasy WRs?
Last season, the WR24 averaged 13.4 ppg, but it was a down year for wide receiver scoring. Historically, roughly 14.0 ppg has been the threshold of a top-24 finish, so that’s the number we’re using.
In three of his four NFL seasons, Samuel has failed to reach 14.0 ppg, including last year. Given that fact, it may seem strange to even ask the question. Shouldn’t Samuel be expected to finish outside the top 24?
Well, Samuel’s ADP sits at WR19. Fantasy managers are not as bullish on him as they were heading into last season, but they haven’t completely faded him, either.
Samuel himself also said that he wasn’t pleased with his 2022 performance and vows to be better. If he is, even marginally, that should be enough to get him into the top 24. Unfortunately, I have concerns.
A big part of what made Samuel elite in 2021 was his rushing. The man scored a whopping eight rushing touchdowns on 59 carries.
A big part of Samuel’s usage out of the backfield was Elijah Mitchell’s injury. With Christian McCaffrey on the team, Samuel isn’t needed as much as a rusher. And even if McCaffrey gets hurt, Mitchell is there behind him.
While Samuel did still average 3-4 carries a game after McCaffrey joined the team, he was never going to maintain his 2021 efficiency. There’s no reason to expect that to return.
In 2021, Samuel added 5.3 ppg via rushing alone. Last season, that number was 3.1. The 2022 number is repeatable, but the 2021 number is never coming back.
The McCaffrey problem is only compounded in the receiving department, as they operate in similar areas of the field. Samuel has never played with a running back who commands targets like McCaffrey.
In addition to McCaffrey, the 49ers have Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle, both of whom also need targets. Samuel may be the WR1, but he’s not posting a top-six target share like he did in 2021. Last year’s 25.4% is more reasonable.
That 25.4% is great for a top-24 option, but it’s also important to note how run-heavy the 49ers are. They ran the ball 48% of the time last season. Brock Purdy at QB will definitely be better for Samuel than Trey Lance because Purdy won’t cost pass catchers targets with his scrambling. Still, this team is not going to suddenly throw 550 passes.
Samuel is faced with a ton of target competition from very good players in an offense that doesn’t throw a lot. It’s a bad recipe for fantasy success to rely heavily on efficiency.
Despite all of this, Samuel did project out as my WR17, averaging 14.9 ppg. Ultimately, the 49ers have a very consolidated offense, with four players dominating nearly all of the touches.
While I do believe Samuel will be a top-24 WR this season, there’s a very realistic chance he’s not for the fourth time in five years. As a result, I’m slightly below consensus on Samuel and not targeting him in 2023 fantasy football drafts.
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