Projecting How the 49ers Look Without Deebo Samuel to Start the Season

Samuel is slated to miss the first few weeks of the NFL season. Which 49ers benefit most?

I wasn't expecting a lot of injury news in the NFL any time soon, but we got one of those unfortunate updates already: San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel has broken his foot.

Sentiment was climbing on the 49ers' top receiver, too.

Samuel, last year, was the WR38 in half-PPR points per game (excluding Week 17) but had shifted to WR27 in June Bestball10 drafts. In 11 games after the team added receiver Emmanuel Sanders and in which stud tight end George Kittle played, Samuel had a 20.5% target market share -- better than Sanders' (19.0%) but well shy of Kittle's (28.6%).

Anyway, it was easy to see why the hype had him on an upward trajectory. Now, though, Sanders is in New Orleans, and San Francisco's wide receiver depth chart is thin behind Samuel while he misses time.

How much time will he miss? It's still unclear.

Samuel said 10 weeks. That'd get him back in time for the season. The medical reports estimate 12 to 16 weeks. It'd be six weeks of NFL action if he lands on the PUP list, which seems very possible.

So, he may not miss time, but he might. If he does, what might that look like for the 49ers?

Next Men Up

The wide receivers behind Samuel on the depth chart include (not in particular order because we don't yet know their depth chart) rookie Brandon Aiyuk, Kendrick Bourne, Dante Pettis, Trent Taylor, and Jalen Hurd. Yikes. Perhaps an addition is in the works.

The early candidate for the biggest boost in targets might actually just be Aiyuk, despite his rookie status. As player news guru Josh Levinson pointed out, Samuel ranked fifth in yards after the catch in 2019, so San Francisco will need to replace that ability somehow.

ProFootballFocus credited Aiyuk for 14 broken tackles on 65 catches and a yards-after-catch mark of 10.9 last year at Arizona State. That tracks.

After that, it's pretty up in the air -- and probably not that appealing either way.

Going back to that 11-game sample with Kittle, Samuel, and Sanders playing together, those were the only three players who averaged more than 3.0 targets. Now, we can view that trio as, respectively, Kittle, Aiyuk, and [insert SF WR2 here] for six weeks. That wouldn't leave much for anyone else, and, frankly, even Samuel (5.1 targets on average) and Sanders (4.7) didn't have a ton of volume last year in that split.

The 49ers' offense, if it resembles what it did last year, just doesn't utilize many other options with veracity. In fact, Bourne (9.5% target share) was fourth on the team in that 11-game sample.

So, what we're likely dealing with is a target share around or just shy of 30.0% for Kittle through six weeks. It's certainly not unfathomable for Aiyuk to get a 20.0% target share, similar to where Sanders and Samuel were.

Aiyuk, then, would be looking in the vicinity of 5.0 targets per game, give or take, based on where Samuel and Sanders were last season. The real awesome, best-case scenario would be that he carves out more than a 20.0% share, yet even a 25.0% target share is 6.2 targets per game.

Damn you, 49ers run game.

Of course, there are reasons to think the 49ers have to throw more in 2020 than they did in 2019 if they get worse and lead less frequently, yet we shouldn't anticipate a complete deviation.

In 2019, they ranked 29th in pass rate when the game was within 7 points either way, via SharpFootballStats, and even when they were losing narrowly (1 to 7 points), they threw just 59.5% of the time, shy of the league average rate of 63.0% in that split.

Put another way, they had to be trailing to throw at even the league-average rate. They aren't going to become pass-heavy all of a sudden.

Now, what exactly would six weeks without Samuel look like?

No Deebo for Six Weeks

Using weekly projections from numberFire, it doesn't look particularly good for the 49ers' wideouts.

Aiyuk is projected for 7.2 half-PPR points in that six-week sample, good for just WR54 numbers compared to the rest of the league. (For what it's worth, Samuel averaged 7.4 in 11 relevant games with Sanders and Kittle last year.) Even if Aiyuk gets up to a 25.0% target share or so, we're not looking at a weekly no-brainer start in fantasy formats.

Kendrick Bourne, who slots in as the second receiver in our projections, is close behind at 6.8 half-PPR points, WR60 numbers in this six-week stretch. Target share is up for grabs, but in the run-first offense, it's unlikely that any San Francisco receiver puts up significant volume numbers -- unless Aiyuk bucks the trend and gets fed a higher rate of targets than either Samuel or Sanders did last year and the 49ers throw a lot more.

That would mean throwing a lot more with even fewer receiving threats than they had last year. It just doesn't really add up.

Still, that's possible, but even then, Aiyuk doesn't slot in as an immediate fantasy starter, no matter how much we might want that to be. He doesn't look like a free pass for six weeks when we really look back and project things out.

But, hey, you're probably thinking I'm forgetting someone. I'm not.

George Kittle is projected for an average of 13.2 half-PPR points in that span, good for TE1 numbers, ahead of Travis Kelce (12.8 projected half-PPR points from Weeks 1 through 6). Only Mark Andrews (10.8) is also above 9.0 projected half-PPR points in that opening split.

Kittle, then, should be the biggest beneficiary of the loss of Samuel early on.

And Then What?

Samuel isn't out for the year. He's going to return. He has fallen to our WR63 for the full season, but we know that doesn't fully account for his value. When he's back, he's a strong fantasy asset, right?

Samuel himself is projected to be the WR31 the rest of the way if he returns to full in Week 7. He's expected to average 9.8 half-PPR points per game, WR30 numbers. Eh. That's just about where he was getting drafted (WR27) before the injury.

Obviously, here, it'll depend on how far he falls in your drafts to see if he's worth the stash. Samuel still has low-end WR2 or high-end WR3 written on him when he returns to the field, so he's probably not worth jamming up a short bench for.

When Samuel returns, Kittle just barely nudges out Kelce for TE1 from Weeks 7 through 16, by the way.

The Bottom Line

The biggest winner here is going to be George Kittle, who should have a very real claim to TE1 territory with little competition for targets.

As for hitting big with Aiyuk or any other 49ers wide receiver, the market share trends from last year and the passing rates from San Francisco don't really point to anyone being immediately fantasy viable.

Aiyuk can still make plays and play the Samuel role to a degree, but even then, we're looking at a likely flex play early in the season.

As fantasy football managers, we should aim higher.