Case in point: In 2019, for the Saints and Fantasy fans, Michael Thomas was absolutely insane with nearly 375 fantasy points on a record 149 catches for 1,725 yards and nine touchdowns. As a result, he was the #1 consensus wide receiver in fantasy drafts and a surefire first-round pick. However, the aftermath wasn’t nearly as good.
Thomas averaged 12 fantasy points per game, down more than 11 points from last year, and missed nine games due to injuries. It’s hard to predict long-term illness, of course, but Thomas wasn’t nearly as productive even when he was playing.
The point here is that few people saw this coming because Thomas was so good in 2019. That leads me to this series, aptly named The Fantasy Case Against… in which I’ll do my due diligence by looking at players who are all in the fantasy land seem to think it’s a safe bet is to remain hyper-productive after achieving a high level of success over the past few seasons.
The series highlights well-known players, or those who statistically have had tremendous years and may see a surprising decline in fantasy success. As I always say, the only thing that’s predictable about the NFL is that it’s often unpredictable. And as much as we love our fantasy heroes on the gridiron, no one is ever guaranteed success.
I started 2022’s The Fantasy Case Against series with Cooper Kupp and Davante Adams, so now let’s take a look at another superstar wide receiver. Debbo Samuel.
Samuel was one of the top three wide receivers in fantasy football, behind only Kupp and Adams. He recorded 77 catches on a team-high 121 goals for 1,405 yards and six touchdowns. Samuel too rushed for an impressive 365 yards and eight touchdowns in a wide back roll and finished with a personal best of 339 fantasy points. Overall, about a quarter of his fantasy points came from carries from the backfield.
Did you know?
According to Fantasy Football Calculator, Samuel had an overall average draft position (ADP) of 89.8 in the 2021 Fantasy Football Drafts. He was the 38th average wide receiver selected behind Corey Davis, Laviska Shenault, Robby Anderson and Michael Thomas (to name a few). None of those four wideouts finished higher than 49th. Samuel’s teammate Brandon Aiyuk was selected at 53.9, 16 wideouts ahead of him. The Arizona State product would finish as a WR35, or 32 places behind Samuel.
With 339 fantasy points, Samuel ranks fifth all-time among 49ers wide receivers, behind only the great Jerry Rice (1995, 1994, 1993, 1986). He’s also the only wideout in the franchise’s all-time top 10 (based on PPR rating) not named Rice or Terrell Owens.
The fact that Samuel was used in a wide back role was a real boost to his value and production level. As I mentioned earlier, around 25% of his total fantasy points came as bishops. Historically, his 365 rushing yards ranked fourth among Super Bowl-era wide receivers. Tavon Austin (434 yards in 2015), Ty Montgomery (390 yards in 2016), and Joshua Cribbs (381 yards in 2009) are the only players listed as wide receivers by their respective teams who had more yards.
While he finished fourth among wideouts in a season, Samuel’s eight rushing touchdowns are the most scored by a wide receiver in the Super Bowl era. Only one other wideout, Austin (2015), has up to four rushing scores in a single year.
Scroll to Next
Coaching & personnel changes
Samuel will continue to be a prominent component in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense. The coach claims his relationship with his veteran wide receiver has “always been fine,” despite Samuel purging his social media of all 49ers content earlier this offseason. Things appear to be better between the two sides, however, as Samuel reported to the 49ers’ mandatory mini-camp but did not attend team practice.
Assuming no setbacks in the summer months, Samuel shouldn’t pose a risk to fantasy managers. However, there could be some risk that his role as a broad back will change in the near future. NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport reports that Samuel probably won’t see as many carries “between tackles” and that the team has taken some steps in the offseason that limit him to just “gadget plays” on offense.
The team re-signed veteran Jeff Wilson Jr. and selected Tyrion Davis-Price in the NFL draft, contributing to a backfield depth chart that includes Elijah Mitchell, Trey Sermon and JaMycal Hasty. Shanahan used Samuel out of necessity last season when the Niners saw a number of backs out through injuries, including starter Raheem Mostert. The re-signing of Wilson and the Davis-Price draft will mean less of Samuel as a runner.
The 49ers will also have a new mobile quarterback under center in Trey Lance. While we love its advantages from a fantasy perspective, the North Dakota state product has a lot to prove as a next-level passer. As a rookie, he had just 71 attempts and completed 57.7% of his passes while throwing five touchdown strikes with two interceptions.
Lance is also a double threat quarterback, which was evident in his 1,100 rushing yards in his last full collegiate season. He’ll lengthen plays far more than Jimmy Garoppolo, which is good for his receivers. But he will also put away the ball and run often.
Samuel is a surefire top 20 overall pick after a 2021 breakout campaign, but I’d argue that fantasy scoring regression is inevitable. If Samuel does indeed see fewer carries and, more importantly, sees carries in the red zone (14 in 2021), his numbers are likely to go down. Again, 25% of his total PPR Fantasy points last season came as backs.
Without those backfield looks, Samuel would still have finished last season as a pass catcher with 254.5 points. That would have been enough for 11th place among wideouts, 3.3 points behind Keenan Allen and 7.9 points ahead of Mike Williams. The question is how big the drop in backfield touches (and his career-best 1,405 receiving yards) will be for Samuel with an inexperienced Lance under center?
Nobody can doubt his playing skills and his skills on the gridiron. Samuel is a tackle-breaking machine that should remain a productive part of Shanahan’s offense in 2022 and beyond. But I can easily see an 80-100 drop in fantasy points this season. That’s still good enough to be a borderline #1 or #2 fantasy wideout in PPR formats, but this projected decline in its wide-back role should worry fantasy fans.
More Fantasy and NFL Coverage:
Michael Fabiano is award-winning fantasy football analyst on sports illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all of his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can continue to follow Michael Twitter, Facebook, youtube and Instagram for your hottest fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!