Deebo Samuel Trade Request Proves NFL's WR, RB Hybrid Spot Won't Become a Trend

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistApril 22, 2022

San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel (19) gestures to the fans before the game against the Green Bay Packers during an NFL football game, Sunday, Sep. 26, 2021 in Santa Clara, Calif. (AP Photo/Lachlan Cunningham)
Lachlan Cunningham/Associated Press

In the NFL, a player's versatility makes him an invaluable asset, but how does a team quantify a special skill set at the negotiating table? Deebo Samuel's contract situation with the San Francisco 49ers may end the high usage of wide backs before it becomes a growing trend. 

Before the 49ers played their wild-card postseason game against the Dallas Cowboys, Samuel answered a reporter who asked him about his position:

Field Yates @FieldYates

Question to Deebo Samuel: “If you were to meet someone and they asked you what position you played, what would you say?” Answer: “Wide back. Wide receiver playing running back.” All Pro Wide Back. https://t.co/qEZqGO2AF1

All smiles three months ago, Samuel means business as he goes into the final year of his rookie contract.

The 49ers wideout told ESPN's Jeff Darlington that he requested a trade but didn't go into specifics about his motives. 

A couple of hours after the news broke, NFL Network's Tom Pelissero provided possible reasons why the 26-year-old might want out of San Francisco on The Rich Eisen Show:

"It sounds like there's multiple layers to this, but certainly one of them is Deebo Samuel wants to be a receiver and not a receiver/running back. His rushing attempts were significantly up last season from where they had been in the past. We all know he's a really, really physical player, but there probably are some concerns here about longevity. The counterpoint to that, of course, is that part of the reason Deebo Samuel is so valuable is because he's versatile.

"... In the big picture, it sounds like the role is part of the reason that Deebo wants to play someplace else where he may just be able to be a true wide receiver and potentially tack on some years to his career."

Samuel's versatility, which 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan masterfully used to the team's advantage, may inevitably cause a split if San Francisco doesn't tone down the wideout's usage in the run game. 

In 2021, he racked up 1,770 yards and 14 touchdowns from scrimmage and earned his first All-Pro nod. He led the team in catches (77), receiving yards (1,405) and rushing touchdowns (eight). Of his 59 carries (for 365 yards), 21 resulted in first downs. 

Samuel served as the 49ers' lead wide receiver and arguably their most reliable running back in critical situations. He moved the chains on the ground and as a pass-catcher (72 total first downs). Shanahan also featured him in the red zone. He scored eight of his 14 touchdowns within 20 yards of the goal line.

Pro Football Focus' Ari Meirov shared the numbers for the South Carolina product's 2021 snap count and highlighted the expansion of his role in the backfield and on special teams:

Ari Meirov @MySportsUpdate

Deebo Samuel's usage in 2021, per PFF: Backfield: 116 (23 first two years) Slot: 239 Wide: 591 Kick returns: 16 (1 first two years)

Samuel did it all for San Francisco last season, so he probably won't (and shouldn't) play another snap with the team until he's compensated for his all-purpose usage.

Nonetheless, it's unknown what kind of contract talks the 49ers and Samuel have had, but we can imagine what they'd be like. Samuel would likely want to be paid more than most top-tier wide receivers for his all-purpose dominance, whereas the 49ers could want to pay him less than the top-tier receivers because his physical style might make him more likely to get hurt and wear down.

Based on the recent explosion of the wide receiver market, we can project his new contract numbers. Let's take a look at the biggest deals for wideouts over the past few weeks.

  • Christian Kirk: Four years, $72 million with $37 million guaranteed
  • Davante Adams: Five years, $140 million with $65.7 million guaranteed
  • Tyreek Hill: Four years, $120 million with $72.2 million guaranteed
  • Stefon Diggs: Four years, $96 million with $70 million guaranteed (extension)

The Athletic's Jeff Howe talked to people around the league who referenced Kirk's deal in connection to the rapidly growing wide receiver market.

"It's [Christian] Kirk's fault,” said an assistant coach. "What happened to Kirk is 100 percent the issue."

"How much Kirk got really vaulted the money," an executive said. "That was huge for [Adams and Hill] to get those historic deals. It put more pressure on those clubs to make sure they meet those needs."

None of the four wide receivers who cashed in over the past month provided a significant impact on the ground, which sets Samuel apart from them. He's certainly produced at a level that's commensurate with a deal that averages $20 million to $25 million annually. No one—not even the 49ers—can argue against that perspective, which leads us to ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter's thoughts about the contract standoff before Samuel's trade request came to light: 

Sports Illustrated @SInow

“San Francisco would pay Deebo Samuel today, tomorrow, the next day. It’s not hard to figure out what the contract would look like, we’ve seen some of the top numbers in the league." –– Adam Schefter https://t.co/zUOCGdnmj6 https://t.co/GHFhXjem8q

So why is Samuel not willing to discuss his contract at this time? Perhaps Pelissero had a point about the receiver's unhappiness with his hybrid role.

As we all know, running backs endure a lot of wear and tear, and they often start to decline around 30 years old, depending on their workloads. In 2021, Samuel saw a significant increase in his rush attempts and may have some concerns that additional touches at a more physical position could impact his durability. Keep in mind that he missed several games because of foot and hamstring injuries through the 2020 campaign and broke his fibula in 2017 at South Carolina.

Some of you may liken Cordarrelle Patterson to Samuel in this hybrid category. The former finished the 2021 term with 205 touches compared to 136 touches for the latter, but they played in different situations, and you can see a huge disparity between the two in their snap counts.

Patterson finished the 2021 campaign with 1,166 yards and 11 touchdowns from scrimmage. He led the Falcons in rushing yards (618) and touchdowns on the ground (six), but the versatile playmaker ranked third on the team in targets (69), catches (52) and receiving yards (548).

The Falcons featured tight end Kyle Pitts and wideout Russell Gage in their aerial attack. Patterson played only 47 percent of the offensive snaps. Meanwhile, as the 49ers' No. 1 wideout, Samuel took the field for 80 percent of the offensive snaps. 

Morry Gash/Associated Press

Even as a decoy on the field, Samuel can create opportunities for his teammates as coordinators roll coverage and stack the box to stop him. He finished the 2021 season ranked fifth in receiving yards, averaging 18.2 yards per reception and 6.2 yards per rush attempt. Patterson doesn't have the same effect on defenses, averaging four yards per carry last season with modest career receiving numbers.

On a smaller scale, with a wide receiver who's on the field for fewer than 50 percent of the offensive snaps, a team can use him in the wide back role because of the limited workload, which puts a ceiling on a player's contract demands. At 31 years old, Patterson signed a two-year, $10.5 million ($5 million guaranteed) deal to stay in Atlanta. He doesn't have a lot of time left in his playing career, though.

A young wide receiver in a lead role with several years ahead of him would have to maintain an absurd workload and take the added hits that come with the hybrid position. That's a lot to ask of anyone in a physical sport that spans 17 games plus a possible postseason run.

Samuel's versatility could be his gift and a curse if he wants to be a traditional wide receiver. Whether the 49ers reconcile with him or grant his trade request, wherever Samuel plays next season, he might not want to be the face of the new wide back position. We may not see a prominent wideout play in this role again.


Player contract details are provided by Over the Cap.

Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.