How Deebo Samuel's Injury will Change the 49ers Offense

Grant Cohn

“Which wide receiver should replace Deebo Samuel in the 49ers’ starting lineup while he’s injured?” is the wrong question to ask.

“How should the 49ers reconfigure their offense during Samuel’s absence?” is the dead-on-accurate question. The 49ers need to make fundamental changes to their offense, not superficial ones.

Sure, the 49ers simply could place rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk into Samuel’s starting spot -- they’re similar athletes, and Aiyuk is a first-round pick. He should become a starter eventually. The 49ers could throw him in the deep end Week 1 and see if he sinks or swims.

But is that what Bill Belichick would do?

Would Belichick fast-track a rookie into a starting role he hasn’t earned after an offseason with no OTAs or minicamp, just to have a wide receiver on the field?

Of course not.

Belichick would find the 11 best remaining players on his offense, regardless of position, and play them. If three of his 11 best players were tight ends, he’d use three-tight end formations. He’s flexible and he would adjust.

What will Kyle Shanahan do?

I used to think Shanahan was a rigid system coach, like his father. Someone who used 21 personnel -- two running backs, one tight end and two wide receivers -- and ran outside-zone running plays regardless of the players he had.

But Shanahan matured and evolved in 2019. He expanded his running game to include gap-blocking plays, not just zone-blocking plays. And he used lots of new-age run-pass options from the shotgun for the first time in his career.

Maybe Shanahan has changed.

The old Shanahan probably would thrust Aiyuk into the starting lineup Week 1 and tell him, “Good luck.”

The new Shanahan might do something unexpected.

Shanahan is known for using 21 personnel, which was effective for the 49ers last season because they had two quality wide receivers: Samuel and Emmanuel Sanders. When the 49ers used 21 personnel in 2019, their plays were successful 55 percent of the time. A terrific rate.

But the 49ers also had a 52 percent success rate when they used 22 personnel -- two running backs, two tight ends and just one wide receiver. The 49ers are a run-first team and 22 personnel is a run-heavy grouping. It suits the 49ers.

Ross Dwelley is a quality No. 2 tight end entering his third season on the team who knows the offense and has played well when the 49ers have given him opportunities. He should receive more playing time in 2020.

The 49ers also have rookie tight end Charlie Woerner, a blocking specialist, who can split time with Dwelley. Not to mention All Pro tight end George Kittle.

At running back, the 49ers can play Raheem Mostert and Kyle Juszczyk -- two of the best players on the team. Sometimes, the 49ers can take Juszczyk out of the game, replace him with a halfback -- Tevin Coleman -- put Mostert in the slot and make him run jet sweeps. He’s the fastest player on the team. He’d be a fantastic jet sweeper. Saints head coach Sean Payton uses running back Alvin Kamara this way. Shanahan should copy Payton. They steal from each other all the time.

When the 49ers use 22 personnel, defenses will sell out to stop the run game and leave themselves vulnerable to play-action passes. Last season when the 49ers used 22 personnel, Jimmy Garoppolo averaged 11.1 yards per pass attempt and his quarterback rating was a whopping 146.3.

The 49ers can make 22 personnel their primary grouping while Samuel is out, and each wide receiver can play some of the time. Aiyuk can play on first down and run end-arounds and catch screen passes. Trent Taylor can play on third down and catch passes over the middle. And Kendrick Bourne can play in the red zone and score touchdowns.

And when Samuel returns, the 49ers can keep using 22 personnel, because he’s the only starting-caliber wide receiver currently on the roster. No one else has earned a full-time role yet.

I’m guessing no one in the NFL expects Shanahan to make such drastic changes to his offense. But no one expected him to revamp his run game last season, either.

Shanahan is a dark horse. Watch out.