In the midst of a quiet portion of the early NFL offseason, the defending NFC champs were dealt a blow to their chances of returning to the big game. During a workout with teammates on June 18, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel injured his foot. As it turns out, Samuel suffered a broken foot which gives him a recovery timetable of 12-16 weeks.
It's not devastating in the sense that Samuel isn't lost for the entire season as would occur with an ACL or Achilles tear. Some, including Samuel himself following successful surgery, are optimistic that he'll be ready for Week 1. The truth, unfortunately, is that even in the best-case scenario, Samuel won't be at 100% for the start of the season and could wind up missing half the year while mending from this injury, if not more.
Either way, his fantasy value has taken a hit and the door is now open for other Niners to step up in his place. Let's break it all down bit by bit.
Not as widely recognized as other sports injuries, Samuel suffered a Jones fracture of the fifth metatarsal. This particular type of injury is more common than you would think and is also far more menacing than it sounds.
Typically, a fracture will heal with sufficient rest over time. This particular type of fracture doesn't bode well for a swift recovery, though. In a study done two years ago by the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, possible issues include the possibility of refracture, delayed healing, and post-surgical complications such as infection. The Niners are familiar with this already, as this is exactly what happened to receiver Trent Taylor last year. Taylor suffered a Jones fracture in the preseason and was only expected to miss a handful of games. Then, he required a second surgery to correct the first, and the area around the screw inside his foot became infected and forced him to miss all of 2019.
Those eager to blow off this injury as a minor setback before the season gets underway might also pay attention to these quotes from the comprehensive cohort study:
"50% of all players with a previous Jones fracture demonstrated incomplete healing. Moreover, position-specific performance scores over the first 2 years of a player’s career were lower across all positions for those with fractures compared with controls."
"For every position group, players with Jones fractures had lower fantasy scores compared with controls."
That might explain some of the immediate reactions from the medical community regarding his injury.
Dr. David Chao immediately tweeted out that he expects a PUP stint, for what it's worth.
The number of weeks isn't what we need to focus on. It's the fact that, much like your favorite brisket (y'all do have that up north, right?), his recovery will need to be low and slow.
All of this adds up to the fact that Deebo Samuel should simply be avoided in redraft leagues. No matter how great he feels about his surgery on Instagram or how optimistic sports doctors, amateur doctors, dynasty owners, or Niners fans are, he is almost certain to miss at least the first six weeks of the season. Once he returns, he shouldn't be played much right away, he may not be back to previous performance levels, and risk of re-injury remains worryingly high.
In redraft leagues, he simply isn't worth clogging up a roster spot. As far as dynasty goes, there is no need to make a move either way here unless a panicked owner in win-now mode is willing to sell him at a discount.
Samuel's ADP has already dropped from the early sixth round to the 11th in best-ball leagues. It should be far lower, as there are numerous receivers who will outperform him even for the portion of the season he does play. Naturally, some will pivot to other options on the 49ers roster. But is there someone who can step in and replace the production expected by Samuel?
It's Gotta Be the Rookie, Right?
The first logical step is to look at first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk out of Arizona State. He posted nearly 1,200 receiving yards and finished third in Yards After the Catch among qualified FBS receivers in 2019. He chipped in another 672 return yards fielding both kickoffs and punts. His straight-line speed isn't overwhelming, but he has good burst and is able to avoid tackles, hence the high YAC totals.
San Fran ranked second in points scored and fourth in offensive yardage last season. The fact that they chose to spend the 25th overall pick of the NFL Draft on a receiver indicates that they plan to involve him in the offense right away, as well as on special teams. Aiyuk was supposed to be the complementary piece to Samuel on the other side, but now he will have to serve as a temporary replacement. This should mean a steady supply of targets and a huge jump in fantasy value. That assumes he can step up and be the next Deebo, but he may not be up to the task, at least not right away.
Most rookies take a few weeks to get acclimated to the speed of the pro game and fully learn and integrate into a playbook. This may especially be the case with Kyle Shanahan's offense. Plus, this year more than ever, rookies are at a disadvantage because of the COVID-19 situation. Team activities, meetings with coaches, and access to facilities are all limited, which means we may see less of an impact from rookies than we've gotten accustomed to.
The last thing to consider with Aiyuk is the fact that Deebo Samuel could return by midseason and negate much of the value Aiyuk would have for fantasy leagues in the second half of the season. As mentioned above, first-year wideouts take a while to get going. A.J. Brown only caught 22 passes for 348 yards in the first eight weeks before going off for 703 yards in the final eight games. Samuel himself had 22 receptions for 227 yards in the first half of the 2019 season and went on to post 35 receptions for 575 yards in the second half. There's a chance Aiyuk becomes this year's rookie breakout, but now you'll have to pay up with a draft pick to take that chance rather than scooping him off waivers midseason. Aiyuk belongs on fantasy rosters for 12+ team leagues, but if his ADP rises too far this offseason, don't overpay by making him than a top-150 overall pick.
Digging for Gold
If Aiyuk isn't the easy answer, then where else can we find value on this roster? The truth is that this isn't an offense that revolves around any single player, especially at WR.
The main man in the passing game is at tight end, obviously. George Kittle will still be the top target and could actually be the one that benefits the most from this injury, believe it or not. It's hard to imagine that he could play a bigger role than he already does, but that is exactly what tends to happen when teams lack reliable weapons on the outside. The emergence of TEs like Darren Waller and Mark Andrews last year has more to do with the lack of top-flight wide receivers on those teams than anything.
My pod co-host Chris Mangano stated his case for Kittle as the biggest riser in San Fran after this injury news broke. If anything, it just secures him as the TE1 over Travis Kelce, but it's not as if he should become a first-round pick unless you're playing in a TE-Premium league like FFPC. We're not looking at tight ends replace a receiver anyway, as that's not how fantasy leagues work.
A name that many, including myself, are trying to forget after last year is Dante Pettis. He caught on as a trendy sleeper before 2019 after ending his rookie year with a strong stretch that included six consecutive games with at least six targets, four touchdowns in a three-game span just before the fantasy playoffs, and an average of four receptions and 72 yards per game from Week 12 on. Needless to say, things didn't work out so well in his second season.
Pettis was in the coach's doghouse throughout the preseason and never found his way out. Shanahan repeatedly called him out for lack of effort and it resulted in Pettis becoming a non-factor. He played two snaps in the season opener against Tampa Bay, saw the field a fair amount over the next few weeks but was only targeted a total of 24 times before disappearing off the map after Week 10. Is there a chance that Pettis reforms his work ethic, impresses his coaches, and breaks out in this third NFL season? Sure there is. There's also the chance that tonight's winning lotto numbers are inside that fortune cookie. I wouldn't put money on it though.
Kendrick Bourne would seem to be next in line at receiver, as he was fourth on the team in targets last year after Emmanuel Sanders, who is now in New Orleans. Bourne might see a slight increase in action, but after three full seasons, he is averaging two catches and 25.6 yards per game. It's doubtful he will suddenly emerge to be anything more than a role player.
The same goes for Richie James or Trent Taylor. James was going to be on the roster bubble until Samuel's injury, with the addition of Aiyuk and return of Taylor from IR. James could make the final squad after all, but is simply depth at receiver. His main role is going to remain as a return man on special teams. Taylor has a chance to assume the slot role, but we already outlined that a player recovering from a Jones fracture is a risky proposition. He'll have to fight for snaps and even then, he won't steal many looks away from Kittle across the middle of the field. Neither is worth consideration outside of the deepest dynasty league.
Jauan Jennings has an outside shot to make the roster, which could push Bourne out, but he was unimpressive at the combine and will have an uphill battle to climb this preseason. Free agent Travis Benjamin could replace Dante Pettis or Richie James, but he won't be any more valuable. He is a speedy return man with hands of stone, often dropping easy touchdown bombs from Philip Rivers. His career catch rate of 52.3% dropped after a 37.5% rate last year.
A Fantasy Nugget
It's easy to forget that aside from Samuel in round two, the 49ers selected another receiver in round three last year: Jalen Hurd. He missed the entire 2019 season with a stress fracture in his back. Hurd has the physical talent to succeed, however, and now his window of opportunity is wide open.
Hurd stands at 6'4" and 226 lbs, which gives Jimmy Garoppolo a big target. He also has the ability similar to Samuel to line up in the backfield and move around the field in multiple formations. Hurd was used at RB more often than at WR in his stops at both Tennessee and Baylor.
He could become a versatile weapon for Shanahan on bubble screens and crossing routes, as well as seeing some carries as he did in college.
The first pivot for fantasy owners seems to be Aiyuk based on immediate ADP shifts after Samuel's injury, but Hurd is the screaming value that shouldn't be ignored. His versatility and word of how impressive he has looked in workouts have me targeting him in the later rounds of drafts.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Jerick McKinnon. Yes, he's still in the league. Matt Breida is gone, so McKinnon can play a role in this crowded backfield as a pass-catcher and change-of-pace back. Injuries happen at RB all the time (just ask McKinnon), so he has sleeper appeal once again. While the Niners clearly have a plethora of options at receiver, even if none are particularly outstanding, the injury to Samuel could simply make the passing game more conservative and focus on running the ball even more.
Ultimately, the real winner from this situation is probably George Kittle, but don't rule out the running backs like Tevin Coleman and McKinnon as fantasy risers, who haven't seen a bump in ADP just yet. While Brandon Aiyuk will be draft-day darling, Jalen Hurd is the smarter pick and might wind up being this year's Deebo.
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