SANTA CLARA — Watching Brock Purdy fire passes at Deebo Samuel this August looks so natural and so encouraging for the 49ers’ offense.
They hooked up twice to start Saturday’s preseason win over the Broncos, and they produced seven completions in Monday’s practice.
It’s not as if the Purdy-to-Samuel connection was invisible last season, while Purdy ripped off eight wins before his NFC Championship Game injury. Samuel had six catches for 133 yards and a touchdown in a playoff-opening win over Seattle.
But go back to Purdy’s first start, when he outdueled Tom Brady to beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Samuel was carted off that game with knee and ankle injuries that kept him out for the next three weeks.
Samuel’s offseason overhaul of his body has him primed for more targets, thanks to what he calls “a little more to my step, and a little more to my speed, so it’s a little more power.”
A year ago, Purdy wasn’t exactly on Samuel’s radar, at least not until the preseason finale in which Purdy completed 13-of-20 passes for 182 yards with an interception against the Houston Texans.
“I go back to that preseason game where he made a couple of plays and you see he wasn’t scared of the big moment,” Samuel said. “Then when he got his chance (in the regular season), he wasn’t scared then. It was kind of shocking to see how well he was playing with no practice with the ones and the twos, but to be level-headed and get the job done.”
San Francisco 49ers’ Deebo Samuel (19) runs with the ball against the Denver Broncos in the first quarter of a NFL preseason game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Purdy’s first three passes Saturday were targeted to Samuel, producing 25- and 14-yard receptions. After Purdy had a screen pass intercepted by Drake Jackson on Monday, Samuel was targeted for the next two passes, both of which he caught. Consider that a reflection not just on their budding chemistry but on Samuel’s offseason turnaround after what he described as an “awful” 2022 season.
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Purdy, after that game, said Samuel has had a different mindset all camp, adding: “You saw a little glimpse of how he is going to do his job: When he gets the ball, he’s going to be Deebo, but even when he doesn’t, he’s still going to be where he needs to be, and he’ll be there for the team and sort of set the standard.”
Samuel does not pretend to be the 49ers’ vocal captain, no matter how much coach Kyle Shanahan tries talking him into that role. Samuel leads best with his run-over-any-defender nature.
“Deebo is always a guy who people respect. I mean, from how he plays to how he carries himself,” Shanahan said Sunday. “So, a lot of guys look up to Deebo, but yeah, he has been great this year.
“Everyone knows how he’s come back and been ready to go and the way he’s practiced and I think the way he’s treated all those guys has definitely taken a step forward in that way.”
San Francisco 49ers’ Deebo Samuel (19) signs autographs for fans during warmups before the start of a NFL preseason game against the Denver Broncos at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., on Saturday, Aug. 19, 2023. (Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group)
Samuel is entering his fifth season, and he’s nurturing rookie receiver Ronnie Bell, a seventh-round draft pick who must not only learn the detailed offense but moonlight as a return specialist.
“It’s definitely like a big brother relationship, and I appreciate him more than anything,” Bell said of Samuel. “He’s a guy throughout this process who’s taken me under his wing and really been with me in any type of situation where I’m struggling, like at the beginning of camp and not getting reps. He’s always been there telling me to keep going and I’m going to be good.”
Samuel said he and Brandon Aiyuk harped first on Bell’s run blocking, and that the rookie is now coming along, just like Samuel himself did in 2019. “I reflected back to when I was a rookie to how hard you have to practice to get ready for games,” Samuel said.