I remember the hot days of August. Actually, I miss them. They can’t get back soon enough. This past summer, most fantasy owners were anticipating their drafts while having a very clear name in their minds when it came to the San Francisco 49ers wide receiver position: Dante Pettis. As a second-year player and after finishing his rookie season posting more than 13 PPR in four of his last five games, it was reasonable to have high expectations in him and a potential second-season breakout.
Flip the calendar page, put yourself at the start of 2020, and then look back at what 2019 brought with it and you’ll see a completely different picture from the one those owners had in mind back in August: Pettis became an afterthought and rookie-sensation Deebo Samuel turned out to be San Francisco’s real deal at the WR position.
The raw counting stats can often be misleading, but Samuel stomped Pettis all across the board when it came to rookie-season numbers. Even having a very similar market share of targets in San Francisco, Samuel out-performed Pettis in every possible per-game metric.
Pettis’ strong finish to his first pro year made him a ninth-round draftee with an ADP around 102 last summer. Samuel’s stronger rookie-season has him at the 73rd overall spot, or the WR26 in early best-ball drafts.
Not only did Samuel play in 15 of San Francisco’s 16 games in 2019, but also played on 71% of the team’s snaps over the year. Only twice did he drop under 50% — both in the first five weeks of the season.
Considering his production when on the field, the 49ers were absolutely correct to play him more as the season went on. Just looking at his games after San Francisco’s bye in Week 7, it is easy to understand why the 49ers kept feeding Samuel all he could handle and then some.
Samuel’s 15.1 PPR/G from Week 8 to Week 17 was the 18th-highest mark among WRs, and his total of 150.5 PPR ranked fifth-highest only behind Michael Thomas, DeVante Parker, Jarvis Landry, and Kenny Golladay in that span.
That elite performance level, combined with the fact that Samuel finished the year averaging positive fantasy points over expectation, calls for improvement in his second season. Let’s see how Samuel compares to other players and what can we expect from him going forward.
While Dante Pettis seems like the most obvious player to pit Samuel against given both of them were drafted by San Francisco, that doesn’t mean Pettis is the closest comp to Samuel all things considered. In order to find some true comparables to the soon-to-be second-year pro, I used the RotoViz Screener inputting a combination of metrics related to volume, production, efficiency, etc, in it. Here are the five closest rookie-seasons from the past 10 years to that of Samuel.
Torrey Smith is the only player from the list to have retired (though he’s also the one with the earliest entrance to the league) but he won two Super Bowls with different teams during his eight-year career. T.Y. Hilton has been the face of the Colts receiving corps since getting drafted in 2012 (he’s racked up 8,598 receiving yards, the most by a Colt since 2012 by a 5,961 margin!) and he’s a four-time Pro Bowler.
The careers of Cooper Kupp and Christian Kirk are still being written for the most part, but so far things look good for both receivers. Kupp seems to get better every year even while battling injury problems, and Kirk should improve along with Kyler Murray in the Cardinals exciting offense scheme.
The only blip in the list might come from Jordan Matthews, who was one of the most coveted players in the 2014 great group of rookie WRs but never quite lived up to the expectations and, coincidentally, was part of the 49ers postseason run in 2019 after two different stints with the Eagles and a brief stop in Buffalo back in 2017. But it’s important to remember that Matthews compiled back-to-back 200-plus point seasons in his first two years before injuries derailed his career.
But what about their second run in the NFL? Did all of those five players achieve the same great results as they did as newcomers?
How Did They Do In Year 2?
For the second year in a row, all five comps posted 11-plus PPR per game after logging 10-plus PPR/G in their rookie years.
Only Kirk underperformed and had a negative efficiency mark (-1.2), yet even with that, he was able to finish the year averaging 12.9 PPR/G and getting to 168.2 on the full season, good for WR38. Hilton finished 2013 as the WR19 reaching 1,083 yards. Torrey Smith ranked WR30 in 2012 after scoring eight touchdowns. Kupp could only finish as WR51 as he played in just eight games, but he was on pace to finish the year as WR14.
For the lazy reader: the average Samuel-comparable wide receiver finished his sophomore season ranked WR311 and averaging 13.9 PPR/G. That marked a 1.1 PPR/G improvement over what the comparables did on average as rookies (12.8 PPR/G), so if the historical data and trend hold that would mean we could expect Samuel to average 14.4 PPR/G as a second-year pro in 2020.
Samuel’s 2020 Outlook
A grand total of 13 quarterbacks appeared in all 16 games last season while throwing at least 461 passes. Do you know where Jimmy Garoppolo ranks in pass attempts among them? Second-last (476 attempts) — only Josh Allen attempted fewer. Even in such a pass-depressed offense, Samuel was able to produce enough to finish as the WR31.
Samuel was San Francisco’s No. 2 target only behind do-it-all, bonafide superstar, George Kittle. Although Emmanuel Sanders logged more total targets over the course of the season, it must be noted that he played two more games than Samuel (17 overall, as he was traded mid-season and didn’t have a bye week to enjoy) and was only a part-timer 49er.
Sanders is now a free agent, and it is still not clear if he will be back in San Francisco next season (he should, and probably will be). No problem if he does return, though, as his addition to the offense coincided with Samuel’s most productive stretch of games.
Getting back to Garoppolo, and focusing on his connection with Samuel, it must be said that the pair gave San Francisco the best results among all players targeted by the quarterback in Adjusted Yards per Attempt, making the rookie the most valuable player of the offense even while being targeted fewer times than Kittle.
Although the 49ers’ passing volume could be something that scares off fantasy owners in 2020, it will be hard for Garoppolo and the team to replicate what they did in 2019.
Using the RotoViz Screener again, I found 1,507 quarterback seasons since 2000. Of those, only 55 belong to passers who logged 16 games and no more than 476 passes, as Jimmy G did this past season. The most encouraging thing for those expecting a higher volume of passes from San Francisco’s quarterback is the fact that only four of those quarterbacks2 played 16 games the following season and attempted fewer than 476 passes again. The odds of Garoppolo repeating such marks are pretty low.
Pettis’ ADP of 109 entering the 2019 season as a sophomore was already high, but Samuel’s current ADP of 73.1 among all players and WR26 makes the 2019 Pettis look like a value.
While there will always be a chance of Samuel falling short of expectations, Shawn Siegele made Samuel’s case just over a month ago in his 2019 rookie re-draft piece:
Samuel scored 198 points as a rookie. In the last 20 years, only 19 rookie receivers have scored more. […] From Week 8 on, Samuel’s 15.8 PPG made him a borderline WR1. Deployed all over the field, the 49ers rookie ranked No. 2 among all WRs by averaging 8.2 yards after the catch.
Sam Wallace provided further reason to buy Samuel in all formats, particularly dynasty, even if you have to pay a slight premium. The potential for a top-12 season is already there, but his price has yet to catch up to the upside he brings with him.