In the Bay Area, the trio of George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, and Deebo Samuel are aptly named the YAC Bro’s, referring to their ability to gain yards after the catch (YAC). No year has this moniker been more appropriate than the past 2021-22 NFL season, where the third member of the brotherhood accumulated 1405 receiving yards with more than half of that coming after the catch, en route to All Pro 1st-team honors and a Pro Bowl selection.
Deebo’s athleticism and hardiness was one of the main reasons the 49ers made it to the NFC Championship game this year. Despite the loss to the LA Rams, the accomplishments of the team can be viewed in a positive light as they were trending in the opposite direction just months prior. Midway through the season in November, when the 49ers looked to be a sinking ship at 3-5, Deebo put the team on his back. The head coach of the 49ers, Kyle Shanahan, switched up the playbook and played Deebo like a running back, which suited the wide receiver’s physical play style. The 49ers steamrolled the Rams 31-10 in Week 10 and went on to win 7 of their final 9 games of the season.
The third year wide receiver’s excellence as both a rusher and a receiver makes him stand out from the crowded field of talent. To contextualize Deebo’s success as a receiver, I took data from the top 49 receivers in the NFL this season in terms of yardage and plotted their yardage against targets. Receivers that are more above the regression line can be seen as more efficient with the opportunities they are given (ie. they gain more yards than a normal top-49 receiver with the same amount of targets).
It’s not surprising to see that Deebo’s point lies above the line with the likes of Justin Jefferson and Offensive Player of the Year Cooper Kupp. The contrast gets more stark when YAC is plotted against targets. There are clear standouts: Deebo, Cooper Kupp, and Ja’Marr Chase. It is all the more impressive when you consider that Deebo has about 70 targets less than Kupp but only 70 or so less yards after the catch.
Part of Deebo’s explosion this season can be attributed to more opportunity. Since he had the hot hand, he got the ball more often and capitalized on his targets and carries. His game tells a story of volume and efficiency. This wasn’t always the case, though. Last season, Deebo only played 7 games as he was in and out of games due to nagging injuries. Though not entirely due to a decline in playing ability, Deebo had a sophomore slump after exploding out of the gate during his rookie season with the 49ers. In the beginning of the 2021-22 season, many people pinned Brandon Aiyuk as the star that would overtake the 49er wide receiver room. Though not to be seen as a metric for playing ability, Aiyuk was drafted much higher than Samuel in most fantasy football leagues. Not many people foresaw Deebo’s All-Pro season, myself included.
Though the 49ers lost to the LA Rams in the playoffs this season, their future is looking promising. Jimmy Garoppolo is likely to be traded in the offseason, opening the door for Trey Lance to take over after a year spent mostly on the sidelines. If Jimmy is dealt, cap space will be freed to lock down Deebo to a long-term deal (as he is still on his rookie contract). What Deebo accomplished in the 2021-22 season is remarkable, but the possibility of a mobile quarterback like Lance slinging it downfield to the wide receiver leaves even more room for excitement. His versatility as an offensive weapon—combined with Lance’s arm and Shanahan’s playbook—sets the scene for a fireworks-laden 2022-23 season.