The 49ers have been looking for a go-to, playmaking, bonafide No. 1 wide receiver for a while. Injuries and lack of production have prompted the 49ers coaching staff to keep trying different combinations at the position.
Trent Taylor was expected to have a big year, but was lost in the preseason. Dante Pettis was expected to blossom in Year 2, but that hasn’t happened. Marquise Goodwin hasn’t been 100 percent physically. Draft pick Jalen Hurd hasn’t yet played because of injury.
Deebo Samuel, however, appears ready to morph into San Francisco’s biggest outside threat.
The second-round pick from South Carolina this spring has posted consecutive weeks of big-time production. He had eight catches for 112 yards in a loss to the Seahawks on Nov. 11, then followed up with an eight-catch, 134-yard performance in a win over Arizona Sunday.
The 5-foot-11, 214-pounder has now caught 38 passes (on 53 targets) for 473 yards (a 12.4-yard average) and a touchdown in his rookie season and leads 49ers wideouts in receptions and yards while trailing only tight end George Kittle in those categories in overall team stats.
Veteran cornerback Richard Sherman says his rookie teammate is a “fearless” receiver who will battle defensive backs for catches and make the tough receptions.
Samuel has proven, too, that once he catches a pass, he can pick up extra yardage. The analytic website Pro Football Focus notes he leads all NFL wide receivers with 12 forced missed tackles, and averages 7.2 yards after the catch, the best among all wideouts with 25 or more receptions.
The last NFL rookie wide receiver to have at least eight catches and 100 or more yards in consecutive games was Odell Beckham Jr. of the Giants, when he did it in four straight games in 2014. And, the 49ers note, he is only the third San Francisco rookie wide receiver to have multiple games with 100 or more receiving yards, joining Jerry Rice and Dave Parks.
Veteran fullback Kyle Juszczyk has called Samuel’s recent play “phenomenal,” and cites the way he attacks both the ball and defensive backs once he makes the catch.
“So many times he’s been the spark for us,” he told ESPN.com’s Nick Waggoner. “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.”
The 9-1 49ers and Samuel will be challenged Sunday, when they take on the 8-2 Packers at Levi’s Stadium. Kickoff is set for 5:20 p.m.