SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- As star tight end George Kittle works his way back from knee and ankle injuries and primary wideout Emmanuel Sanders battles through a rib cartilage ailment, the San Francisco 49ers have been left to wonder who will step up to fill the void for the offense.
The answer has come in the form of a 6-foot, 215-pound battering ram of a rookie with a moniker that matches his relentless approach to the game: wide receiver Deebo Samuel.
"Deebo Samuel is fearless," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "He'll run through any catch. You get some receivers running across the middle, and they're looking for who is going to hit them. Deebo is looking for who he's gonna hit. That's a much different mentality from most people. It's almost like you expect him to break the tackle when he catches the football. And it takes a tremendous amount of trust in your quarterback, a tremendous amount of trust in your abilities to be able to play like that.
"Because some of the plays they're drawing up is him running into traffic. He's running into a safety who is breaking, and it could be a huge hit. And he's not wincing, he's not crunching up, he's running through it, catching the ball and keeping going. That's a fearlessness that can't be coached, and it can't be taught. You either have it, or you don't."
The fact that Samuel has it has made him one of the 49ers' most important players heading into the season's final six weeks and, without question, their biggest offensive weapon the past two.
In Sunday's win against Arizona, Samuel was again at the top of his game, posting eight catches for 134 yards. The most spectacular catch was an acrobatic 26-yarder down the sideline on third-and-9 late in the third quarter that left San Francisco fans raucously chanting "DEE-BO, DEE-BO, DEE-BO" even as he gingerly walked to the sideline after landing awkwardly on his shoulder.
"You catch the ball with your eyes and your hands," Samuel said. "Without that, you wouldn't be able to track the ball, so I never lost focus of the ball and just went and made a play."
The injury didn't keep Samuel out for long, as he returned to the game and delivered two more catches for 18 yards and a first down on the game-winning drive on his way to joining elite company.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, Samuel's 134 receiving yards are the third-most by a 49ers rookie in a game, trailing tallies by Jerry Rice (241 yards in 1985) and Dave Parks (146 in 1964). Samuel is the second Niners rookie to have consecutive 100-yard receiving games, joining Parks, and he is the first Niner of any experience level to do that since Marquise Goodwin in 2017.
"Deebo has been phenomenal," fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. "He's a guy that when the offense is maybe not going the way we want it to, he so many times has been the spark for us. And that's pretty awesome for a rookie to be able to step into that position and have that kind of pressure and still make plays. I feel like every time he touches the ball, he gets more confident, and he's throwing guys to the ground and doing his thing."
Without Kittle and with Sanders playing hurt the past two games, Samuel's productivity has been on par with that of the league's best receivers. Only Saints wideout Michael Thomas (266 yards) has more receiving yards in that span than Samuel's 246 heading into Monday.
That Samuel has done this in his typical wrecking-ball style while developing a better grasp of the offense -- at a time when the Niners needed someone, anyone to move the chains -- should bode well for when Kittle and Sanders get back to full strength.
"He's just an absolute dawg," tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "I mean that in the best possible way. He's got the heart of a lion, and he never, ever quits. He was banged up today, fighting through some stuff, and all he did was fight and make play after play for us and move those chains in big situations, and he's been doing that progressively more all year. You watch the tape: It takes five, six guys at a time to bring him down, and he wants to score every time he touches the football. It's really, really cool to watch."
It's also really, really helpful for a team in need of a consistent playmaker entering its most important games of the season.