The San Francisco 49ers have not had a winning season since 2013 when they finished 12-4. In the five seasons since, they’ve amassed just 25 wins. That is, of course, until now. At 7-0, the 49ers are in control of the NFC West division, arguably one of the toughest in the league, and one of only two undefeated teams in the NFL. The 2019 rookies have played a big part in that record. They’ll look to keep things rolling with a prime time week 9 Thursday Night Football matchup against the Arizona Cardinals.
One key element of the turnaround is the efficiency of the offense. During the stretch of losing seasons, San Francisco never finished higher than 12th in yards per game. In 2015 and 2016, they finished second to last in the league. After that, the team set its sights on a proven NFL offensive signal-caller. Enter Kyle Shanahan.
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While the 49ers offense was wasting away under head coach Chip Kelly in 2016, Shanahan was busy as Atlanta’s offensive coordinator. He led the Falcons to the highest-scoring offense in the NFL and a berth in the Super Bowl (a 34-28 loss to the New England Patriots). The 49ers signed the NFL Assistant Coach of the Year as their new head coach the day after Super Bowl LI.
The 49ers acquired their franchise quarterback midway through the 2017 season, trading a second-round pick to the Patriots for Jimmy Garoppolo. He won all seven games he started that year, and the 49ers offense jumped from 31st to 12th in yards per game. Last year Garoppolo tore his ACL in week three and was lost for the season. Despite 10 starts from backup quarterbacks, Shanahan led the 49ers offense to a respectable ranking of 16th overall.
After a rocky start, Shanahan and the San Francisco offense are hitting their stride. Garoppolo is healthy and on a seven-game winning streak for the second time in his young 49ers career. In the 2019 NFL draft, the team invested in three offensive skill position players: second-round wide receiver Deebo Samuel, third-round wide receiver Jalen Hurd, and sixth-round tight end Kaden Smith. As the 49ers attempt to go 8-0 under the bright lights of Thursday Night Football, let’s examine how much the rookies are contributing to one of the NFL’s best offenses.
The Deebo Samuel show
Through seven games, the only offensive skill position rookie making a significant impact is Samuel. He is currently second on the team in receiving. He has 18 receptions for 187 yards and a touchdown in six games. He also has five rushes for 37 yards and a TD. A look inside his Offensive Share Metric (OSM) shows Samuel is not only contributing but dominating.
Pro Football Network’s OSM breaks down who is playing a significant role in the production of an offense. The formula goes beyond traditional statistical analysis to show a player’s contribution to their team based on individual factors only that player can control. It is graded on a 100-point scale, though this is nearly impossible to achieve as it would mean a player threw the ball, then caught it and somehow also rushed with it simultaneously. Anything over a grade of 40 is considered an elite performance.
Samuels’ current OSM grade on the season is 40.21. It is the third-highest among all wide receivers in the NFL and indicates he is performing at an elite level. However, his grade is based on a limited sample size as he’s seen just 25 targets on the season. To qualify for an OSM grade, wide receivers must receive a minimum of five targets per game.
The OSM qualifying weeks came in weeks two and six. In week two vs. Cincinnati, Samuel caught 5 of 7 targets for 86 yards and a TD, good for an OSM grade of 48.17. In week six versus a much stingier Los Angeles Rams defense, Samuel caught 3 of 5 targets for 18 yards. While the rookie isn’t getting a ton of targets, he’s certainly doing the most with what he’s getting.
Following the Hurd
It’s a different story for Hurd. The fellow rookie and converted running back was less polished than Samuel coming into the league but provides an intriguing weapon in Shanahan’s offense. Things looked promising as Hurd caught three passes for 31 yards and two TDs in his preseason debut. The following week, he injured his back in joint practices with the Denver Broncos. The 49ers placed Hurd on IR earlier this month. He is eligible to return in Week 13, but after suffering a setback in rehab, Shanahan said he’s doubtful Hurd returns this season.
Smith was waived in September and claimed by the New York Giants.
Looking to the future
The 49ers have to feel good about the future. After three different head coaches in three consecutive seasons (Jim Harbaugh in 2014, Jim Tomsula in 2015, and Kelly in 2016) they’ve finally found their man in Shanahan. Garoppolo is in year two of a five-year deal. They have one of the top TE’s in the NFL in George Kittle. And the future looks bright at wide receiver with the emergence of Samuel and a Swiss Army knife of a weapon in Hurd waiting in the wings. Oh, by the way, the 49ers have the top-ranked defense in yards allowed per game through seven games. They have to be considered the current favorites to represent the NFC in Super Bowl LIV. A division win against the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday Night Football will only bolster their chances.
Travis Yates is a writer for PFN. You can find him @TheTravisYates on Twitter.