Photograph: John Hefti/AP
Every once in a while a player comes along who redefines their position.
We’ve seen positionless defensive players, hybrid safety-linebacker types. We’ve seen corners who can play in the slot or happily kick out to the boundary. Over the past decade, we’ve seen the rise of the polar bears, tight ends as adept at mauling fools in the run-game as they are running down the field as their team’s finest receiver.
And yet, as a football collective, we’ve waited for the unicorn: The running back-wide receiver. There have been flashes. The spread revolution gave rise to tweener players, those who could align in the backfield as a running back or wriggle out to the slot (or wider) to catch passes. Getting the ball to your best athletes in space became the doctrine of offensive football.
In the college ranks, the likes of Tavon Austin and Percy Harvin embraced football’s move from a tough, between-the-tackles, thumping sport to one based on the principles of pace and space.
But in the NFL, coaches have always favored specialists over the hybrids. They didn’t need a receiver to line up at running back – they had a world-class running back to do that. They didn’t need a running back to flex out as the outermost receiver, they had all the elite receivers they could handle. These were professionals, masters of their craft; there was no time for split duty.
In Deebo Samuel, the unicorn has finally arrived. Samuel is the San Francisco 49ers’ best running back and the team’s best receiver. He may be the finest running back and the finest receiver in the league, at least in terms of efficiency and explosiveness. If he’s not, he’s as near as makes no difference.
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There is a childlike glee to Samuel’s brilliance. To watch him is to see an athlete who is stronger and faster than the 21 other human beings on the field – and those 21 humans are among the…