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Changing roles

Samuel, Waddle switched things up last year

Typically with football projections, you start by assuming players will be something like what you saw previously – usually slightly better or worse, but playing with the same style as the previous season. But on occasion, you run into guys like Deebo Samuel and Jaylen Waddle, where everything can be thrown out the window.

With these guys last year, neither played anything like they did the previous season. Not only were their numbers different, but so was the way their teams used them.

With Samuel, back in 2021 he caught 77 passes for 1,405 yards, averaging a league-high 18.2 yards per catch, with a bunch of long gainers. Last year, he caught 56 passes for 632 yards, averaging only 11.3 yards per reception – there were far more catches going for short gains around the line of scrimmage.

We probably all should have done a better job of that coming, giving that Samuel averaged only 11.8 yards per catch back in 2020.

The decline of 6.9 yards per reception is the 2nd-largest by any player with 50-plus catches (in both seasons) in the last 50 years. He trailed only Eddie Brown, who way back when was one of the receivers drafted before Jerry Rice.

1989Eddie Brown, Cin.5281415.76-8.37
2022Deebo Samuel, S.F.5663211.32-6.96
2012Larry Fitzgerald, Ariz.7179811.24-6.40
2015Coby Fleener, Ind.544919.13-6.09
1985Roy Green, St.L.5069313.95-6.08
2013Cecil Shorts, Jac.6677711.83-6.03
2012Victor Cruz, NYG861,09212.710-6.03
2022JaMarr Chase, Cin.871,04612.09-5.94
2020Stefon Diggs, Buff.1271,53512.18-5.85
2021DJ Moore, Car.931,15712.44-5.64

Waddle was the exact opposite. He averaged only 9.8 yards per reception as a rookie, catching mostly short, quick throws around the line of scrimmage. In the 2022 season (with a new coaching staff) he zoomed up to 18.1 yards per reception, finishing with 341 more yards despite catching 29 fewer passes.

Waddle averaged 8.3 more yards per catch, and that’s the 2nd-largest increase by any player in the last 50 years (again, among those with at least 50 catches in each of those season). Only James Jones has improved more.

2015James Jones, G.B.5089017.888.68
2022Jaylen Waddle, Mia.751,35618.188.32
2019Stefon Diggs, Min.631,13017.967.93
2008Steve Smith Sr., Car.781,42118.266.70
2017Tyreek Hill, K.C.751,18315.876.05
1997Amp Lee, St.L.6182513.535.71
2021Tyler Lockett, Sea.731,17516.185.56
2008Michael Jenkins, Atl.5077715.535.50
2011Larry Fitzgerald, Ariz.801,41117.685.01
1986Mark Clayton, Mia.601,15019.2104.94

For the 2023, I expect Samuel to finish below 12 yards per catch. He’s always been better on those short routes. Brandon Aiyuk should run more of San Francisco’s deep routes.

With Waddle, I expect his average with drop by a couple of yards as defenses do a better job of defending Miami’s scheme. But Waddle should continue to have a high average than Tyreek Hill, who seems to be the guy they prefer on the shorter, quick passes.

—Ian Allan

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