On their way to a surprise appearance in the 2021 NFC championship game, the 49ers took the league by storm with their unique utilization of third-year receiver Deebo Samuel. Including playoffs, the South Carolina alum lined up in the backfield as a traditional running back on 116 snaps—both in shotgun and under center looks—and rushed for 365 yards (6.2 YPC) and eight touchdowns on 59 carries.
While Samuel got the glory, there was another player who put together a similarly successful season in 2021: Cordarrelle Patterson, who's primarily been a receiver and return specialist in his nine-year career. Unfortunately, his efforts flew more under-the-radar because he was on a bad team in Atlanta. But in 16 games with the Falcons, the 30-year old veteran put together his best offensive season to date, rushing for 618 yards and six touchdowns on 153 carries and reeling in 52 of his 69 targets for 548 yards and five touchdowns receiving.
The strategy itself is not necessarily revolutionary; it's the talent and the situation at hand. Teams have employed their receivers in a similar fashion before, such as the Packers with Ty Montgomery and Randall Cobb in the mid 2010s. But Samuel, for example, is a special breed, thus making any attempt to replicate his production easy to theorize but incredibly difficult to execute.
That, of course, will not—and did not—stop teams from trying. As Samuel and Patterson's continued success drew more attention, similar strategies were deployed around the league.
The Lions did it with rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, who scored a 27-yard touchdown on a draw play against the Seahawks in Week 17. On an even smaller scale, the Dolphins did it with another rookie pass catcher: Jaylen Waddle. He carried the ball just twice, whereas St. Brown saw seven touches in 2021. But he found the end zone once and will likely see more action out of the backfield with the arrival of new head coach Mike McDaniel—the man who helped orchestrate Samuel's breakout.
While it's an eye-roll-inducing cliché, the NFL truly is a copycat league. As such, some teams are undoubtedly going to try to find their very own Deebo Samuel this offseason, while others will scour their respective rosters with the same intention—only to discover such talents don't grow on trees.
But perhaps a team or two will be an exception to that rule and find similar or even better success than what the 49ers had with Samuel this past season. After all, he only saw seven combined snaps in the backfield before Week 10, per Pro Football Focus. From there, that number jumped to an average of nearly 10 snaps per week, with double-digit totals in each of the team's final five games.
Volume, however, didn't always translate to better results for San Francisco, though it's less about play-to-play success and more about the upside of increasing your best and most dynamic playmaker's touches by a considerable margin.
The same hypothesis can be—and has been—applied to other sports, such as baseball teams moving their best hitters to the top of their respective lineups to ensure more plate appearances. In basketball, Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets—a center by trade—currently leads the NBA in touches (98.7 per game) because he's more often than not the best player on the court. So why not utilize similar practices in the game of football?
The issue is: it's harder to manufacture such opportunities without forcing it to the detriment of your offense; and not every great offensive player has the skillset to do what someone like Samuel can. DK Metcalf may be the Seahawks' best weapon on the offensive side of the ball, but he lacks the change-of-direction and lateral quickness needed to efficiently run in between the tackles and so forth. Tyler Lockett is better suited on that front, but injuries have evidently diminished his explosiveness to a certain degree and Seattle has rarely let him carry the ball over the past three seasons.
That said, if they so desire, there may still be a way for the Seahawks to hop on this trend without having to add anyone to their current roster. That would be Dee Eskridge—the team's second-round draft choice in 2021, whose rookie campaign was derailed by a severe concussion suffered in Week 1.
Via sweeps, Eskridge was expected to play an important role in the team's run game under new offensive coordinator Shane Waldron. In the end, he only carried the ball four times for 59 yards, adding to his disappointing receiving total of 64 yards and one touchdown on 10 catches. But the home-run hitting ability that earned him such a high draft slot was apparent in some of his few opportunities.
Now, physicality—or lack thereof—is a bit of a concern, considering he's more in line with the 5-foot-10, 182-pound Waddle than the taller and heavier St. Brown and Samuel. But despite Eskridge's 5-foot-9 stature, he boasts good enough size at 190 pounds and eye-catching speed with a recorded 4.38-second 40-yard dash time at his pro day a year ago. He's a dynamic receiver with the tools and the build of a quality third-down running back, which makes the prospect of lining him up out of the backfield intriguing. It also doesn't hurt that he primarily played the position in high school as well.
Needless to say, if Seattle did this, it wouldn't be an exact one-for-one recreation of San Francisco's attack. For one, Eskridge may be the third- or even fourth-best player in his own unit, which defeats the "get the ball in your best player's hands" aspect. Furthermore, his size would have to dictate the way in which he's specifically used out of the backfield.
The Seahawks would likely run Eskridge outside the tackles more, which better fits Waldron and new offensive line coach Andy Dickerson's scheme. And there are other ways to get him out in space, such as sneaking him out into the flat and giving him blockers to work with downfield on screens. Given his near-elite speed, big plays could be had with the right personnel and execution up front.
At the very least, it's something to think about before the offseason kicks into high gear next month. Fans have pounded the table for "more creativity" out of Seattle's offense for years, and this is a way to possibly do that. It could help wash the poor taste of Eskridge's lost rookie season out of everyone's mouths and carve out a unique role that goes beyond the mundane responsibilities of a No. 3 or No. 4 receiver who's situated behind two All-Pro talents. He doesn't have to be split out wide to make an impact.