The San Francisco 49ers are in the most interesting of situations entering Tonight’s National Football League draft. Deebo Samuel is perhaps the best young talent in the entire league, offering versatility from multiple positions with bankable skills at every level.
The 49ers would not have advanced to the NFC Championship Game last January against the eventual Super Bowl Champion Los Angeles Rams without his season-long contributions. His third season was his career best, and he avoided serious injury while sparking San Francisco’s offense.
No player in the National Football League plays a season injury-free. In 1994, I appeared on the San Francisco 49ers weekly highlight show with runningback Ricky Watters. Sometimes, the 49ers offensive star would wear shorts to the set and his legs were often swelled in spots where he had recently taken a hit.
“Ain’t nottin’,” Ricky would say with a smile.
Samuel is entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract, and looks to be in a position to get his big pay day. His contributions during the first three years of his professional career are certainly beyond what his rookie contract bargained for. He delivered more than he was paid, and now he wants to cash his worth.
It is a great time for Deebo to flex his muscle, but the 49ers are faced with a whole different equation. While Samuel is coming off his best season, it is worth noting that the average career length for an NFL running back is 5.3 years. Granted, Samuel may blow those standard statistics and contribute for a decade or more at a top level pace. But, is this not the time for San Francisco to cash their chips on their star player?
In 2022, the 49ers are without a first round draft choice. Acquiring a young player in the first round that can contribute for the next four seasons under a rookie year deal, might be the right way to go. In a year, whether the 49ers hold on to him or not, Samuel is going to go. He will end up joining a team that offers him a ridiculous amount of money to wear their uniform.
Samuel is going to follow the money, just like Ricky Watters did in 1995. He left the Super Bowl Champion 49ers for a struggling Philadelphia Eagles team.
“I can be the number one back there, get a lot more chances.,” Ricky told me while his agent was putting the finishing touches on his contract with the Eagles. What I told Rickey that day and still believe today, that winning in an organization that is well run is much more important than the size of your paycheck.
If Ricky hadn’t followed the money, instead stuck with his Super Bowl winning teammates, players with the likes of Steve Young, Jerry Rice and Bryant Young, he could have been a vital cog in multiple Super Bowl championships. But, as he bemoaned in a conversation just before he left the 49ers, he would never be the featured offensive player with San Francisco.
He wanted that, got to be the number one back during most of the three seasons he played in Philadelphia, and closed out his career with two seasons as a member of the Seattle Seahawks.
Following the money will offer Samuel a bigger payday … and surprisingly the 49ers could benefit too. San Francisco made a questionable trade last year to move up in the draft and take Trey Lance with the third overall pick. Lance was one of five quarterbacks selected in the first round in 2021, and while in the days leading up to the draft it was expected the 49ers would remain with the twelfth pick, and Mac Jones would be available and their choice, the 49ers decision makers gave up a lot to move up nine places in the 2021 draft.
The first three packs in last year’s draft were quarterbacks. Trevor Lawrence went first to the Jacksonville Jaguars, the New York Jets selected Zach Wilson, and the 49ers traded their 2021 first round choice and a first and third round selection in 2022 to move up to that third slot and select Lance.
That leaves the 49ers without a first round choice today. Without a first round pick, San Francisco is faced with losing trade value with Samuel even if he plays in San Francisco this season, while trading him now for multiple first round picks could add talent to the 49ers for longer than one year.
If what Samuel offers is weighed against his long term return on investment, the best thing the 49ers could do is jettison him out of town now and use the picks gained in the trade to get a first round draft choice on their roster who would play the next four season under his rookie contract and add another first round pick to their 2023 selections. That is, of course, expecting that trading Samuel today would bring two first round choices and other considerations from the team acquiring him.
When Bill Waslh handled the 49ers personnel, he was always regarded as a fox to know when to trade a proven star. Consider this, while maintaining a Super Bowl caliber squad, the 49ers traded Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott and Jerry Rice.
Samuel is much younger than Montana, Lott or Rice were when they were traded to bolster the 49ers roster in years to come, but now might be the best time for San Francisco to get value for their dynamic star.
Too early to trade Samuel?
Better than too late.