How the NFL's leading receiver, the 49ers' Deebo Samuel, became more than a gadget guy

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- San Francisco 49ers wideout Deebo Samuel has amassed plenty of his 490 yards this season on big plays. But to fully grasp why Samuel is the league's surprise receiving leader through four weeks, take a closer look at two catches that gained just 28 of those yards in a game the Niners didn't even win.

During San Francisco's 30-28 loss to the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 26 at Levi's Stadium, Samuel made the first of those two catches with 8:39 left in the third quarter, picking up 16 yards on third-and-9 at Green Bay's 9. The second came on third-and-10 at the Packers' 24 and went for 12 yards. Both receptions led to Niners touchdowns.

For Samuel, those catches weren't just important for the team, they were also a form of on-field validation.

Why? Because they came on "swirl" routes, also known as a "corner curl," in which the receiver makes it look like he's running to the corner but curls back toward the line of scrimmage. Samuel has wanted to sharpen those routes since he arrived as a second-round pick in 2018.

Because it's such a staple of coach Kyle Shanahan's offense, Samuel spent the offseason working relentlessly to graduate from versatile gadget guy to all-around athlete capable of beating defenses in every way imaginable.

When Samuel caught the 16-yarder, he was wide open but had to climb the ladder to haul it in. On the other catch, he had Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander draped all over him, perhaps cognizant of the route from the previous connection. Samuel, who was the fourth read for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo on the play, shortened the route and then lived up to his nickname to outmuscle Alexander for the ball.

"We call that play almost every day at practice and that route is never thrown," Samuel said. "It just so happened to come. ... That's probably one of the hardest routes to run. I don't like running it but it's part of the playbook."

In addition to leading the NFL in receiving yards, he is first in yards after the catch (266) and fifth in yards per reception (17.5). Those 490 receiving yards are the second-most through four games in 49ers franchise history, trailing only Jerry Rice's 522 in 1995 and the most by any wideout in the NFL through four games since Julio Jones in 2018.

And though Samuel has a pair of long touchdown catches (79 and 76 yards) boosting his fast start, it doesn't feel like a fluke because he's evolved into a more complete player.

"It's a very cool thing to watch because Deebo's a player that if you take the time and you're able to show him exactly what you want, he is willing to do whatever it takes to improve upon it," offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel said. "And it's your job as a coach to best articulate that through film to show him how he can get better. I know he wants to be great. And the best thing about him is he is not satisfied. He's been able to really expand his route tree. ... He's expanded the way that we've been able to get him to the ball."

The expansion of Samuel's game is no accident. In fact, it's two years in the making. Last year, Samuel hoped to return for his second season in better shape, so he'd be better equipped to handle all that the Niners asked of him as a rookie. Because the 49ers use pre-snap motion at one of the highest rates in the league, Samuel was almost always on the move and would often find himself struggling to stay on the field without breaks.

Samuel was on track toward for better fitness until breaking his foot during a June 2020 workout in Nashville with teammates. After the season started, Samuel suffered a pair of hamstring injuries that limited him to seven games. Before departing for the offseason, Samuel sought counsel from Shanahan and receivers coach Wes Welker.

Welker challenged Samuel to train in a way that would wear him out and then keep going, thus bolstering his wind. Samuel accepted the challenge, spending the offseason at House of Athlete in Weston, Florida, a facility owned by former NFL receiver Brandon Marshall. The five-days-a-week work would start with some early morning running on a track followed by weightlifting and then another running session. Samuel even did hot yoga twice per week. For on-field work, Samuel would hop over to Receiver Factory in South Florida, working with the likes of Stefon Diggs, Jarvis Landry, Justin Jefferson, Emmanuel Sanders and others.

"It was just doing everything possible to come back in better shape and just be the best version of me I can," Samuel said.

When Samuel returned to the Bay Area, he was clearly more fluid in and out of breaks, particularly on deeper routes. Once limited to mostly short passes, handoffs and intermediate, in-breaking routes, Samuel now finds himself running a full route tree. He's been targeted 42 times, tied for fourth-most in the NFL and his 33.3% target share on routes run ranks fourth among receivers with more than 25 routes run.

While Samuel is still getting plenty of opportunities to catch and run near the line of scrimmage, his air yards per target is up to 7.9 from 2.36 in 2020. He's been targeted 15 or more yards down field 10 times after he'd had 20 such targets in his first 22 NFL games.

Samuel's knack for playmaking even has 49ers defenders taking a peek when the offense is at work, wondering what Samuel might do next.

"Deebo is a very special, unique player," linebacker Fred Warner said. "He's built like a running back, he runs like a running back but he's a receiver. He attacks the ball like a receiver, he can make plays down the field like a receiver. Especially in our type of offense, you can use him a lot of different ways. Maybe there's people who are used similarly but they're not Deebo."