By Mark Kreidler
Special to The Examiner
Trying to guess the 49ers’ NFL draft picks this year is mostly A.) Harmless fun, B.) Complicated by forces outside of the draft itself, C.) Destined to be either faintly or loudly wrong.
And the answer, of course, is D.) Tell me again what Deebo Samuel wants.
That’s it, really. Once Kyle Shanahan and John Lynch are comfortable that they know what it is that Samuel is truly seeking in his professional life — A trade? A massive contract? Both? — they can figure out whether to accommodate their offensive star or get on with their busy NFL days. But it won’t be quite as easy as that, and the uncertainty might — or might not! — shift the winds that blow through their war room on Draft Day, which is right around the corner.
This all burst into public view within the last few days, so let’s run everything back. Samuel was drafted as a wide receiver, but he isn’t that now. He just isn’t. In the middle of last season, Shanahan adjusted Samuel into a hybrid mode in which he is almost as much a running threat as a receiving one. It is his new reality.
The effect on the 49ers’ offense was immediate — and electric. Samuel caught 1,405 yards worth of passes, but he also ran for more than 6 yards per carry. He became the first player in NFL history with 1,400 receiving and 300 rushing yards in the same season. He scored more touchdowns on the ground (eight) than via Jimmy Garoppolo’s well-paid arm (six). Shanahan’s offense maybe didn’t catch fire, but it became a credible threat to score unexpectedly and quickly, and a sprint to the NFC title game followed.
It changed the arc of San Francisco’s season, in other words. That’s not remotely close to saying that Samuel loved it. I mean, he gave his new role a name — wideback — but he still found a way to wind up rooting against it, at least long term.
I can think of two most excellent reasons why. First, running backs = collisions, and collisions shorten careers. Second, running backs get paid less than wide receivers, and it apparently did not escape Samuel’s notice that Tyreek Hill (Dolphins, $30 million per season) and Davante Adams (the Vegas team, $28 mil per) both just cashed fat checks for being known as receivers, not RBs. Samuel does not want to be known as a running back who catches passes. There’s no money in it.
But what has this to do with the NFL draft? Well, nothing. Or everything. It all depends on the 49ers. And that’s the part the talented player cannot control.
Samuel’s people can ask for a trade, as they did this week via the old reliable route, leaking the story to ESPN. But that cannot execute a trade. All external hysterics aside, Samuel is still on his rookie contract, meaning he’s the property of the 49ers for another season — and after that, the team can franchise-tag him practically into eternity. It gets more expensive, but they can do it if they want to.
This is a verifiably crummy system for the player, but it’s the system the NFL has. So in this case, Samuel’s future almost certainly will come down to whether the 49ers think they can be offered enough in trade to make it worth their while to move (and I apologize for restating the obvious here) their absolute best offensive player.
The moon and the stars. First-rounders galore. It would take a haul.
I doubt the 49ers will see all of that between now and Thursday, so let’s assume they slow-play the Samuel thing and wait to see if it boils. I also doubt the Lynch/Shanahan axis, with its penchant for chewing through players’ usefulness and then disposing of the carcasses, will ever meet Samuel’s desire to be paid in the range of Hill or Adams. Samuel’s yards per catch, 18.4, was better than any receiver in the game last season, but that’s just not how these Niners roll.
This leaves San Francisco mulling its options at pick No. 61, a second-rounder. Defensive backs are there:
Cam Taylor-Britt of Nebraska.
Jalen Pitre of Baylor.
Auburn cornerback Roger McCreary.
Tariq Woolen of Texas-San Antonio.
It’s a fine place to start looking for secondary help.
A couple of wideouts might be standing in the second round, too, but that puts this conversation back where we started. Samuel can always boldface his trade desire by refusing to show up at voluntary workouts and other off-season activities, but he’s really penned in, and he and his representatives know it. It’s incredibly difficult to ask a top athlete to give up a year in his prime, because primes get over so astoundingly quickly, and for that reason I don’t take any holdout talk too seriously.
Neither do the 49ers. Samuel may not love it, and judging off his people’s recent pronouncements, he sure doesn’t. But San Francisco doesn’t have to do a thing with his deal right now. Feel free to continue guessing openly at the draft.
Mark Kreidler is a freelance contributor to The Examiner. Read more of his columns at https://markkreidler.substack.com.