49ers’ big-play WR Samuel adds new role as running back

SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Deebo Samuel was impressive enough as one of the NFL’s most productive receivers in the first half of the season.

Now he’s added another role by lining up as a traditional running back as San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan keeps finding different ways to get the ball in the hands of one of the NFL’s most unique players.

“Find someone that plays wide receiver, fullback and running back,” Niners tight end George Kittle said. “There’s not a lot of comps. I mean, especially in the way that coach Shanahan and our offense staff makes plays for him. Line him up at running back, toss him the ball. Just the physicality that he plays with every single snap and he can score every single play. When you have a guy like that, it’s pretty amazing.”

Samuel keeps delivering amazing performances this season. He has caught 54 passes for 979 yards and five TDs, ranking second in the NFL in yards receiving as he has developed into a well-rounded receiver in his third NFL season.

Then the Niners added a new wrinkle last week after using Samuel successfully on end arounds, reverses and fly sweeps. He lined up in the backfield as a traditional running back six times last week against the Rams and carried five times for 36 yards and a TD as he became the first 49ers receiver in seven years to score on a run and a catch in the same game.

“Deebo is one of the most natural players I’ve been around,” Shanahan said. “He’s very smart. He’s very perceptive. I think he’s extremely socially aware. He kind of has an idea of how everyone is and things aren’t that hard to him. I think what Deebo has gotten better at is sometimes when you have a tendency for things not to be hard, you don’t always go through every single little thing. I think he’s done a much better job of going through the little things, so he can be closer to perfect than not.”

Samuel has gained 1,027 yards from scrimmage this season, the fifth most for any wide receiver in the first nine games of the season since the merger.

That’s why Shanahan wants to find any way he can to get Samuel the ball and lining him up in the backfield only gives him better matchups to exploit.

“When you have willing guys who have the ability to do it, but they’re also physical enough to do it, it just helps you come up with a lot of things to put players in positions to make it easier for them,” Shanahan said.

San Francisco had drafted running back-turned-receiver Jalen Hurd one round after Samuel in 2019 but injuries prevented Hurd from ever playing and he was cut last year. But Shanahan said watching how Samuel excelled on screen passes and reverses made him believe that he could fill that role.

For Samuel, who played running back growing up, the added role wasn’t too difficult to get used to.

“You kind of know what running plays you’re going to get, so it’s not too much stress on learning all the running back positions,” he said. “At first, it was kind of hard but as time goes it just gets easier and easier.”

NOTES: The 49ers opened the practice windows for S Jaquiski Tartt (knee) and LB Dre Greenlaw (groin) and could activate both off IR this week. … RB Elijah Mitchell didn’t practice after having a procedure a broken finger Tuesday but could still play this week. … RB JaMycal Hasty (ankle), DL Maurice Hurst (calf) and T Trent Williams (rest) all didn’t practice.

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