November 23, 2021

49ers' Deebo Samuel Has Compelling Case for NFL's 2021 Offensive Player of the Year Award

The San Francisco 49ers have hardly been the picture of consistency during the 2021 NFL season but, for a now resurgent team firmly back in the Wild Card race, Deebo Samuel has served as a constant.

Having seen his 2020 season disrupted by persistent injury problems, Samuel has proven himself not only as a player capable of putting any durability concerns behind him, but as a multi-faceted playmaker whose versatility makes him one of the most valuable offensive weapons in the NFL.

With the Most Valuable Player award almost exclusively the domain of quarterbacks, other skill position players are left competing for the Offensive Player of the Year honor.

Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp is widely viewed as the frontrunner to take home that award and he has a strong case. Kupp leads the NFL with 1,141 receiving yards, averaging 114.1 yards per game while also scoring a league-leading 10 receiving touchdowns.

Yet Samuel's resume is comparable. Samuel has racked up 994 receiving yards over the 49ers' first 10 games, an average of 94.4 per game, and five touchdowns through the air. Those figures are inferior to Kupp's counting statistics at this point in the season, however, Samuel's impact goes beyond his numbers as a pass-catcher.

Having found the endzone again as a rusher in the Niners' Week 11 rout of the Jacksonville Jaguars that moved San Francisco to 5-5, Samuel now has three scores on the ground, his proficiency out of the backfield illustrated by a rushing performance against the Jags that saw him lead the team with 79 yards on just eight carries.

Samuel is the first wide receiver in the Super Bowl era with at least three rushing scores in two of his first three seasons, having also reached that total as a rookie in 2019.

When working downfield as a receiver, Samuel's determination to work his way back to the football and attack it at the catch point allows him to consistently win 50-50 battles. After the catch, it is his combination of speed, elusiveness and physicality that shines through.

That same mix is also prevalent when he gets the ball as a de-facto running back, and it has helped him rack up 1,131 yards from scrimmage and an average of 15.3 yards per touch that is the best in the NFL.

Of course, that overall figure is still shy of Kupp's total for receiving yards. However, though he is an asset in the blocking game, Kupp cannot claim to have the same all-around influence as his division rival.

No receiver in the NFL has the same impact after the catch. Samuel's average of 9.5 yards after catch per reception leads all wideouts, while it is difficult to think of a receiver beyond perhaps Atlanta Falcons offensive weapon Cordarrelle Patterson who can attack second-level defenders on the ground and succeed to the degree that San Francisco's 2019 second-round pick does when tasked with that challenge by coach Kyle Shanahan.

Recent victories for Michael Thomas and Derrick Henry have proven that non-quarterbacks can take home the Offensive Player of the Year honor.

It is perhaps a stretch to suggest Samuel's performance for the Niners has been as influential as Thomas, who broke the NFL's receptions record in 2019, or as Henry in 2020 when he topped 2,000 yards rushing and again won the NFL's rushing title.

But with Samuel on pace to threaten 2,000 yards from scrimmage, he unquestionably ranks among the most valuable non-quarterbacks for any team in the NFL.

A tremendous playmaker who makes the most of any opportunity to gain yards after the catch, can replicate the impact of full-time running backs on the ground, and who excels at blocking downfield, Samuel's versatility has been pivotal to the 49ers staying in the playoff race.

Should he continue to perform as a receiver, runner and blocker and help San Francisco return to the playoffs, he will at the very least have an outside shot of beating Kupp and his other challengers to one of the NFL's most prestigious individual prizes. 

With the third-shortest odds to win the award on DraftKings Sportsbook — behind Kupp (+175) and Jonathan Taylor (+275) — Samuel (+1000) has long enough odds to earn you a big payday if he can continue his surge in the second half of the campaign. 

Photo: Getty Images/Lines Illustration