Deebo Samuel trade decision puts 49ers on one side of changing NFL

Deebo decision, Brown trade show 49ers on one side of changing NFL originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea

In an offseason that has highlighted a stark change in NFL team building, the 49ers have gone against the tide.

There was no more explicit evidence that head coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch aren’t roaming with the herd than Thursday night in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft.

For years NFL teams have viewed building around rookie receivers as a gamble. For the most part, receivers needed time to acclimate to the NFL. Unless your name was Randy Moss, it was rare for a rookie receiver to come in and make an impact on Day 1. If you needed a receiver, the prevailing thought was that your best bet would be to trade for or sign a proven, older commodities.

But the past two receiver classes — highlighted by Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson — have shown that the new crop of young wideouts, those who have grown up in the pass-happy world of modern football, can be stars from the jump . Thus, teams have been more willing to trade their star receivers for draft that they can, in turn capital, potentially use on the next dynamic star, who will come at a much cheaper price.

The latest example came Thursday night when the Tennessee Titans traded star wideout AJ Brown to the Philadelphia Eagles for the Nos. 18 and 101 picks in the 2022 NFL Draft.

Brown, 24, was entering the final year of his rookie contract and was in line for a massive payday. One the Titans weren’t willing to offer. Brown told ESPN he would have stayed in Tennessee had the Titans offered him $22 million a year. They didn’t.

After trading for Brown, the Eagles inked the electric pass-catcher to a contract extension that will pay him $25 million per season.

The Titans, meanwhile, turned around and drafted Brown’s replacement, Arkansas’ Treylon Burks, at No. 18, resetting the financial clock on the wide receiver portion of their roster.

Brown became the latest star receiver to be traded this offseason, joining Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill.

But while the Titans were fielding calls for and eventually trading Brown, the 49ers did not move disgruntled receiver Deebo Samuel, who has asked for a trade.

Lynch was fairly adamant Monday that he couldn’t “envision a scenario” in which the 49ers traded Samuel. Samuel, 26, is coming off a breakout season in which he caught 77 passes for 1,405 yards and six touchdowns while also rushing for 365 yards and eight touchdowns.

The 49ers’ decision to keep Samuel and try to mend the relationship tells us a few things.

The first is that the 49ers surely weren’t getting the Godfather offer required to move off Samuel. Brown fetched a first- and a third-round pick. That’s a pretty low price considering the Dolphins gave up five draft picks for Hill and the Raiders a first- and a second-round pick for Adams.

The 49ers might have run into two issues. The first is that teams now are more willing to draft receivers in the first round and trust them to be immediately productive — six went in Round 1 Thursday. Secondly, the team acquiring Samuel would need to pay him big money just as the Eagles did brown. That’s effectively two considerable costs to pay — a first-round pick and a big check — for a receiver.

Few teams would be willing to give up much more than the Eagles did in such a situation. That’s not a good team-building strategy.

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Aside from no team being interested in paying two massive prices to acquire Samuel, Deebo’s value to the 49ers is clearly higher than his flat value on the trade market.

Samuel would put up good numbers with almost any team as a straight wide receiver and not a “wide back.” His production wasn’t tied to his gadget-esque usage. However, how Shanahan utilizes Samuel and puts him in a position to get the most out of his insane gifts makes him more valuable to the 49ers than to a team that lacks the Shanahan part of the equation.

While six receivers went in the first round, no player could give the 49ers everything Samuel does. Where the Titans found a Brown replacement in Burks, there was no “next Deebo” to be had.

As teams shift away from paying star receivers big money and lean into trusting the new generation of immediate impact pass-catchers, the 49ers intend to make Samuel a franchise building block. They could have turned him into Chris Olave or Jameson Williams or Garrett Wilson plus extra capital and moved on. They chose a different path.

Instead, they believe what they have in Samuel is a weapon that can’t be easily replaced. That’s putting them on the shrinking side of a changing NFL. Only time will tell if they made the right call.

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