Analysis: What injuries to Samuel, James mean to 49ers receivers

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. — There was significant news Friday coming out of Nashville, Tennessee, where a slew of 49ers skill players were holding on-field training sessions. An unknown member of the team tested positive for the coronavirus, according to an NFL Network report, which came on the heels of other concerning news about the team’s receivers.

All the players there are supposed to be tested and contact tracing will be performed. The team issued a statement saying, “Federal and state privacy laws prohibit our organization from commenting on the personal health of our employees.”

It’s unknown which player tested positive and if it spread to others. More concrete are the injuries to two receivers who had prominent roles last season, and the implications of how they impact the receiving corps.


The 49ers lost their most established receiver earlier this offseason when Emmanuel Sanders signed with the New Orleans Saints, leaving Deebo Samuel expected to take over as the No. 1 wideout following an impressive season in which he set a franchise record for yards from scrimmage for a rookie at the position.

But that transition hit a significant speed bump this week. Samuel sustained a Jones fracture to his left foot, putting his start to the 2020 season in doubt. Further, it was revealed Friday another receiver, Richie James Jr., also the primary return man, recently fractured his right wrist, which could cost him two months of practice time ahead of his third NFL campaign.

It is certainly not an encouraging start for Kyle Shanahan’s receivers heading into a season with Super Bowl aspirations.

The group already lacked established options — and the coronavirus pandemic has already made this offseason particularly challenging, given how scarce on-field practice time has been.


Samuel’s injury came during a players-only throwing session in Nashville, Tennessee, where quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, tight end George Kittle, receiver Kendrick Bourne, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, rookie wideout Brandon Aiyuk and others were working out at Brentwood Academy, about 20 minutes south of downtown Nashville on a synthetic turf field.

A Jones fracture is a break of the fifth metatarsal that runs along the outside of the foot. Those injuries are often a result of repeated stress on the area. It would make sense in Samuel’s case, given his intense training this offseason to lose weight and improve agility.

Samuel during the offseason posted a slew of workout videos from Houston filmed with renowned footwork coach Rischad Whitfield, known as the “Footwork King” on social media (Whitfield has worked with a slew of NFL stars, including DeAndre Hopkins, Antonio Brown, Le’Veon Bell and Andre Johnson. 49ers running back Jerick McKinnon has also spent time with Whitfield this offseason).

The 49ers prize explosiveness in and out of breaks from their receivers. Which means a lot of starting, stopping, changing directions and violent movements. All that can be hard on feet.

Samuel’s injury came to the same left leg as his most significant college injury. He fractured his left ankle in 2017 cutting his junior season at South Carolina short after just three games.


The 24-year-old has vowed to return in just 10 weeks, but it might not be that simple. Last August, fellow receiver Trent Taylor, who also attended the Nashville workouts, also dealt with a Jones fracture that required surgery.

Taylor’s initial prognosis was four-to-six weeks, giving him a chance to return early in the regular season. But his foot became infected during a follow-up surgery, and he wound up missing the season due to a series of complications that included five operations.

The NFL Network reported Samuel’s timeline is expected to be 12 to 16 weeks. The Sept. 13 regular season opener is just over 12 weeks from when Samuel injured the ankle, so returning in time for Week 1 may be the best-case scenario.

NFL Network also reported James’ injury is expected to sideline him for two months. The team said Friday no surgery has been scheduled but also didn’t rule out the need for an operation.


So who stands to see an increase in practice reps with Samuel on the sideline?

Aiyuk, the recent No. 25 overall pick from Arizona State, will garner the spotlight as a recent first-round pick. But it would hard to bank on him as a full-time starter as a rookie without a traditional offseason program given the depth of Shanahan’s complicated playbook.

Bourne will likely be among the leaders in snaps at the position, followed by 2018 second-round pick Dante Pettis, Taylor, Jalen Hurd and veteran newcomer Travis Benjamin. Rookie seventh-round pick Jauan Jennings, who lacks speed but has a similar physical running style to Samuel, will have an opportunity at more reps with a chance to make the team.

Hurd could be the wild card. He scored two touchdowns in the preseason opener last August before a stress fracture in his back cost him his rookie season after being drafted in the third round. He’s been a regular at workouts with Garoppolo recently at San Jose State and also went to Nashville this week. At 6-5 and 226 pounds when drafted, he gives the 49ers a size element they’ve lacked in recent seasons.

That’s what’s currently known about the 49ers injury situation at receiver. What’s unknown is how the recent positive test for coronavirus impacts the team and NFL as a whole. Expect more positive tests throughout the league before training camps are scheduled to open in late July.


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