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How Deebo Samuel and Jauan Jennings bring underrated physicality to the 49ers offense

May 25, 2024 at 12:50 PM

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In the current lull between the NFL Draft and the start of training camp, most people's focus with regard to the San Francisco 49ers seems to be around the ongoing Brandon Aiyuk contract negotiation, or lack thereof. Due to this dispute, the only senior wideout to show up for OTAs was Deebo Samuel, who led a young group of pass-catchers including first-round draft pick Ricky Pearsall.

Digesting some of the OTA reports, along with some late-Saturday Youtube browsing of particular highlights, got me thinking about the two wideouts who seem to have been largely forgotten by 49ers fans amid the Brandon Aiyuk and draft noise, that being the aforementioned Samuel and the (like Aiyuk) absent restricted free agent Jauan Jennings.

A disclaimer: None of what I am about to write is a criticism, either overtly or implied, towards Brandon Aiyuk. He is a fantastic football player, and I hope the 49ers break the contract impasse with him before training camp to keep him in the fold through the peak years of his career. It's strange, though to see the ease with which 49ers fans and the wider 49er-focused media seem to dismiss the other two players, as the general assumption seems to be that the team will move on from both players at the end of the year.

Indeed, one quick look at Twitter during the NFL Draft was enough to see Samuel in particular consigned to fantasy trade scenarios, as though he was a mere trade chip rather than the borderline All-Pro wideout he's been throughout his 49ers career. Jennings, meanwhile, appears to have barely warranted a mention amongst the column inches and bandwidth devoted to the 49ers' various offseason moves. It's understandable that the focus is on Aiyuk to a certain extent, so I would at least stop short of calling this disrespectful. Still, it seems supremely odd that two such talents are considered so low on the totem pole by 49ers fans and media that the assumption seems to be that they could be easily replaced by new talents such as Pearsall or fourth-rounder Jacob Cowing, likely next season, with no drop-off.

It would be easy to point out the obvious qualities of each player when explaining why; either Samuel's incredible seasons, such as his borderline-MVP level effort in the back half of 2021 to drag us into the playoffs, or in Jennings' case, his production of 3rd down and clutch catches over multiple years for the team that led to those successes as well. However, what Samuel and Jennings bring to the 49ers strangely harkens back to an old Mike Singletary (shudder) axiom while at the helm of the team - physicality.

Speed and fantastic route running are excellent attributes, and certainly something that Aiyuk excels at, but a player who 'hits people in the mouth' to use a long-forgotten phrase, imposes their will on a game or the opposition. There's some bias at work here in terms of my preferences, as I'm a former offensive line coach (admittedly at several levels below the NFL). At the same time, one of my favorite NFL and 49ers players of all time is Anquan Boldin, a gritty, tough blocker with a giant heart. I particularly loved Boldin because he played in an era where we had some pretty dire days against the likes of Seattle in particular - consistently being defeated at the point of attack, being out-hit, or just flat-out capitulating (such as in the dreadful Thanksgiving loss under Jim Harbaugh) in the face of tough play.

When Kyle Shanahan arrived, that pattern still somewhat continued, although Robert Saleh was able to bring some attitude back defensively as the team developed. The offense, however, didn't find its feet in that respect for a while. Dating back to the Bill Walsh days, defensively-minded coaches such as Bill Parcells have often talked about the West Coast Offense being 'finesse', and anyone watching the likes of Marquise Goodwin or Dante Pettis in the early Shanahan years wouldn't have had much cause to disagree.

However, starting with the ascension of Deebo in his rookie season, that picture shifted. The running game immediately picked up, the attitude to blocking seemed to improve, and the 49ers were an all-around different proposition as a team, playing with a more defiant, gritty attitude. I'd also be remiss not to mention George Kittle, who, in ascending with Deebo, added some much-needed old-school attitude to the tight-end position. That attitude has since been continued by the linebacking corps of Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw, and physical defensive backs like Charvarius Ward and Deommodore Lenoir. Indeed, their handling of players that might have given previous 49er teams nightmares, like DK Metcalf, exemplifies this.

You no longer fear playing a physical team - oftentimes, now, the 49ers are the more physical team. Think about the 49ers various wins over the Cowboys in the last few seasons, or the grudge game with the Eagles, or the various back-and-forth wins in huge playoff games that this team have been a part of, such as the Detroit NFC Championship game. None of those would be possible without this shift in tone, and it's exemplified by these two players. You'll all have memories of how both players bring this to the team, either by bowling over defenders with the ball in hand as Samuel often does, or being chippy like Jennings does with his spiky run blocking. It never gets old to watch, and it makes the 49ers a formidable proposition to play against.

It's easy to assume that these players and this attitude are easy to replace, the fact is, if it were that easy, we probably wouldn't have gone six or seven years looking to find players that do it. Sometimes, a team has to pay slightly more than a player's 'perceived' value for those who set the tone, and with their blocking and physical running after the catch, I believe that Samuel and Jennings do that for the receiver room.

The concerns around Deebo's contract given our financial situation are understandable, although the production questions that seem to now pervade the debate are perhaps overblown, because even in down years, he's produced some superb and important moments, particularly against the Rams, while maintaining that brutal physicality throughout. There's also a similar logistical difficulty of re-signing Jennings, but hopefully that also gets resolved, because more than most, they represent the heart and soul of the 49ers.

So while the focus on Aiyuk is understandable, it's worth remembering that it wasn't too long ago that he found himself in Kyle Shanahan's doghouse, in large part due to his inability to play with the same fire as Samuel and Jennings. While he is much improved now and an excellent blocker, it's important to remember how and why that became an issue in the first place - because of the players he was measuring up against.

As for the receiver room moving forward, we mustn't be so quick to part with its' standard-bearers, as it takes a long time to build a standard, but not long to dismantle it. It could well be that the likes of Pearsall, Cowing, or Ronnie Bell are the 'next generation' at wide receiver for the 49ers, but they'll have a lot to prove in areas that don't involve catching the ball before we can state that with complete certainty.
  • Written by:
    UK Niner and writer, following scores since 1998, watching games since 2005. Two visits to SF (2015 and 2017) and counting. Claim to fame: saw Blaine Gabbert win a game as a starting quarterback.
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