There were signs over the past month or so that Samuel was increasingly unhappy with the 49ers, including scrubbing the team from his social media accounts and, this week, declining to attend the opening of the 49ers' offseason conditioning program.
And now there are plenty of questions about how a once-strong relationship between a team and one of its best players has reached a critical inflection point.
What is the issue?
Samuel is entering the final year of his rookie contract and would like a lucrative extension. The Niners view Samuel as a foundational player and have said repeatedly they'd like to keep him long term. The Niners are also poised to give defensive end Nick Bosa a mega-contract extension soon. In recent years, the Niners have gotten deals done with players in similar situations (tight end George Kittle and linebacker Fred Warner) after lengthy negotiations. Those agreements have happened closer to training camp, however, allowing the Niners to go through free agency and the draft first.
The receiver market has exploded this year with Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill and Stefon Diggs earning contracts that have reshaped the going rate for a top wideout. And while the ceiling has been reset, the floor has, too, as a less accomplished wideout such as Jacksonville's Christian Kirk received an eye-opening contract averaging $18 million per year.
So Samuel wants a new deal and he isn't the only one. Tennessee's A.J. Brown, Seattle's DK Metcalf and Washington's Terry McLaurin were all non first-round picks in the same draft as Samuel (2019) who are eligible for extensions.
Samuel's situation, however, is different. While others still seeking a deal have longer résumés of production as traditional receivers, much of Samuel's success is tied to his added value as a running back, which, in theory, could raise his price tag above the other wideouts getting paid. But that versatility cuts both ways. It simultaneously increases Samuel's earning power but also takes a bigger toll on his body and, potentially, his career longevity.
At the end of the season, Samuel indicated he was OK with the dual role, even coining the term "wide back."
"I'm perfectly fine with it," Samuel said then. "Like I stated all year long, I'm down for whatever to help this team win in whatever aspect it is."
At the time, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said Samuel would have a "very similar" role in 2022 but acknowledged the Niners "have to be careful with that." Still, it's fair to wonder if Samuel would prefer to play a more traditional receiver role (and thus be paid like one) or, at minimum, have those running back snaps reduced.
What are the 49ers' options?
Just because Samuel has requested a trade doesn't mean the Niners will trade him. They have a few options:
Keep Samuel and repair whatever is broken to sign him long term. From all indications, this would be the Niners' preference. They have been adamant about signing him and keeping him well into the future. They've attempted to engage in discussions in recent weeks, but those have not gone anywhere. Deleting the team's best offensive weapon would be a tough pill to swallow for any team, but especially one that was one win from the Super Bowl and is now preparing to hand over the offense to a young quarterback in Trey Lance. Samuel and Shanahan are close, which means it's not out of the realm of possibility the sides could still find common ground.
Trade Samuel to the highest bidder. This is the option the Niners undoubtedly don't want, but if the offers are good enough, they'll have to consider it. San Francisco doesn't have a first-round pick in this year's NFL draft after dealing it to move up for Lance last year. Adams and Hill were traded for packages that included first-round picks, and it would take something similar for the Niners to move Samuel. The New York Jets, who just missed out on Hill, would be a logical match since the Jets have two first-round choices (Nos. 4 and 10) and familiarity with Samuel because of their coaching staff, led by former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. There's also recent precedent for the Niners gritting their teeth and trading a player they didn't want to trade, having done it with defensive tackle DeForest Buckner and the Indianapolis Colts in 2020. John Lynch has called trading Buckner the hardest thing he has had to do as a general manager. Trading Samuel would undoubtedly shoot to the top of the list.
Keep Samuel, force him to play out his final season and then tag him in 2023. This is the most unlikely and would probably result in a tense stare-down between the sides. The Niners hold some leverage here. The league's collective bargaining agreement states that if Samuel does not report to training camp, he could lose an accrued season and he'd become a restricted free agent in 2023, which means the Niners would again retain control of his rights. Samuel could opt to "hold in," which has become a popular method for players seeking new deals by reporting but not participating in on-field activities. But that would likely have to come with some sort of willingness to work out an extension for the Niners to be on board. The more likely scenario would be Samuel playing out the season and the Niners tagging him with the option to trade him next offseason, though that also comes with significant risk for both sides. An injury to Samuel would hurt his value on a new contract and decrease what the Niners could get in a possible trade.
What is the timing?
What could be holding up a new deal for Deebo Samuel?
Rob Ninkovich shares his thoughts on reports that Deebo Samuel is looking for a new deal from the 49ers after his breakout season.
If the Niners decide to trade Samuel, it would make sense to do it sooner than later.
The NFL draft is set to begin on April 28 and it would behoove the 49ers to know not only if they have a first-round pick but what holes they need to fill if they do. Suffice to say, losing Samuel would create some enormous holes.
That doesn't mean Samuel wouldn't be traded later on. If he's still on the Niners by the end of the first round, though, it should send a clear message on how the Niners intend to handle what has become a messy situation.