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Deebo Samuel’s Unicorn Year

The 49ers wide receiver is suddenly the team’s leading rusher for 2021 — and a huge reason why the Bay Area boys are in the NFC playoff hunt.

What was supposed to have been a transitional season for the San Francisco 49ers is turning into a successful one thanks to the great success of a wide receiver in the midst of an unlikely masquerade as a running back.

Deebo Samuel not only leads the Niners in receiving, but also has a chance to be the first wideout to lead his team in rushing touchdowns since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger. The 25-year-old ran for 29 yards and a TD and had 60 more yards receiving in San Francisco’s crucial 31-13 home win over Atlanta on Sunday, its fifth win in six games to move to 8-6 on the season — and into a Wild Card playoff spot.

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It was Samuel’s fifth straight game with a rushing TD, by far the longest streak by a wide receiver in the Super Bowl era (the previous record was two). It’s also the third-longest streak of any San Francisco player since 1970, one shy of the record set by Raheem Mostert in 2019 and Derek Loville in 1995. Samuel’s seven rushing TDs on the season are already the most by a wideout in the Super Bowl era, blasting the previous record of four. Over the last three games, Deebo just has to hold off Elijah Mitchell, who has five rush TDs on the year, to make NFL history.

Of course, the 2019 second-round pick out of South Carolina is a pretty damn good pass-catcher as well; his 61 catches don’t rank too highly, but his 1,088 receiving yards are good for sixth in the NFL, and he has five receiving TDs to pair nicely with his seven on the ground.

Samuel’s 18 catches of 20-plus yards this season are the fourth-most in the NFL, trailing just Minnesota’s Justin Jefferson, the LA Rams’ Cooper Kupp, and Seattle’s Tyler Lockett. And among wideouts with at least 30 receptions this season, Deebo is No. 1 the league at 17.8 yards per catch.

“I just call [myself] an athlete,” Samuel said when asked to describe what he does for the Niners on the field, whether running, receiving, or blocking.

But at this rate, the most accurate honorific for the season he’s having could be “unicorn.”

The 6-foot, 215-pound Samuel is in rare company, joining Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk in 1999 and Roger Craig in 1985 as the only players in NFL history with 1,000 yards receiving, five TD catches, and five TD runs in the same season.

After a 6-10 season in 2020, the Niners made a bold trade up for the No. 3 pick in the NFL Draft, selecting quarterback Trey Lance from North Dakota State. But Jimmy Garoppolo has remained the team’s signal-caller, conducting an offense anchored by Samuel, a healthy George Kittle, and invincible tackle Trent Williams, while Fred Warner and Nick Bosa have keyed things on D.

With games at Tennessee, home to Houston, and at the Rams to close the season, San Francisco holds a one-game lead as it looks to lock down a Wild Card berth.

And if the Niners do return to the postseason, a lot of it will have to do with Samuel’s uniquely impressive season. He’s on the third year of a four-year rookie contract worth $7.2 million; a free agent after the 2022 season, Deebo will be a big-time target on the open market come March 2023 if he keeps up his one-of-a-kind production.

Until then, Samuel will be too busy doing practically everything on the field at Levi’s Stadium besides cutting the grass.

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