Super Bowl 54 features a pair of second-round rookie receivers capable of being game-breakers in Deebo Samuel and Mecole Hardman.
MIAMI — When the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers meet on Sunday in Super Bowl 54 each will deploy an electric rookie receiver from the SEC.
Each was drafted in the second round but each has proven they can break the game wide open at the NFL’s highest level.
In one corner, Deebo Samuel.
Samuel caught the attention of league personnel as a senior at South Carolina, catching 11 touchdowns. He made the 49ers take notice at the Senior Bowl a year ago, working with their staff on the South Team in Mobile. That week, Samuel was one of the stars, showcasing his 4.48 speed in a 215-pound body.
It was in Alabama that Samuel feels he clinched his fate with San Francisco, provided he lasted to the 36th-overall pick.
However, it was almost a week that never happened for the receiver who missed most of his freshman and junior seasons with a hamstring injury and a broken leg, respectively.
“It’s amazing,” Samuel said. “Its crazy because me and my agent were going back and forth whether I was going to go to the Senior Bowl or not due to all the injuries I had in college. I was timid about going. What’s crazy about that story is I called him the day before and was like ‘bro, I’m really about to go to the Senior Bowl and show everybody what I’m capable of.’”
Now with the 49ers, Samuel’s impact has been immeasurable. The 24-year-old played in 15 games and caught 57 passes for 802 yards and three touchdowns. He also ran for 159 yards and three additional scores. All told, only First-Team All-Pro tight end George Kittle amassed more yards from scrimmage for the Niners this season than Samuel.
“His physicality when he runs, nobody wants to tackle him,” Kittle said. “He truck-sticks guys. He runs in straight lines really, really fast and runs through people’s faces. When he catches a slant route or a seven-yard in, he catches those and runs for days. When you have somebody like that, it definitely makes it hard to cover everybody.”
Entering the Super Bowl, the former Gamecocks star will be one of the men keeping Kansas City defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo up at night. Should the Chiefs play man coverage, it’s likely Kendall Fuller and Charvarius Ward will play most snaps against him, with the larger Bashaud Breeland dealing with Emmanuel Sanders.
The matchup figures to cause problems, though, as Samuel’s speed will be used in a bevy of personnel groupings and formations by San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan. It’s a burden Shanahan can be comfortable thrusting onto such a green player due to his work ethic.
“Deebo is one of the my favorite teammates,” Niners fullback Kyle Jusczcyk said. “If I was just a fan of the Niners, I would think I’d be the biggest fan of Deebo just because I love his style of play. I love how versatile he is, all the different ways we use him. He can line up as a running back, he’s taken enough reverses this year to have some really good rushing stats. He’s just a rookie that’s very coachable.
“He wants to learn. It’s been pretty neat. The night before the games, Kyle goes through his first 24 plays and he hands out a sheet with them all written out there. Deebo sits next to me in every one of those meetings and I watch him take notes on every single play, just little things, little reminders before the game. It’s really cool to see a rookie with that kind of draft pedigree come in and take it that seriously. The hard work has paid off.”
For Samuel, Super Bowl 54 is about rising to the occasion. The 49ers have a chance to win their first Super Bowl since Jan. 1995, a year before Samuel was born. It’s a chance to be great, and it’s something his running mate believes won’t be too big for the precious youngster.
“Deebo has a big-time personality, and he’s a baller,” Sanders said. “I never seen him fold under pressure. I’ve never seen him shaky when it’s time to go to war.”
In the other corner, Mecole Hardman.
While Samuel was drafted as expected at the top of the second round, Hardman’s selection in the back half of the same round surprised many. At Georgia, Hardman was more returner extraordinaire than receiving threat.
Kansas City general manager Brett Veach saw the potential. Instead of taking Ohio State’s Parris Campbell or Ole Miss’ D.K. Metcalf, the Chiefs put their faith in Hardman, despite only 60 catches, 961 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns in three years with the Bulldogs.
While many around the league saw a reach, Kansas City’s front office and coaching staff saw something quite different.
“Mecole is a guy I went to Georgia and worked him out as a guy we might draft,” said special teams coordinator Dave Toub. “I saw his talent. He had a lot of talent and we were fortunate to get him in the second round. He really has developed over the year, he’s slowly but surely gotten better and better to the point he obviously had that big return (Week 17 against the Chargers) for a touchdown. He finally broke one. But he had a number of them that big returns anyway, whether it be punt or kick return. He’s really matured and developed.”
Initially, the plan was to ease Hardman into the receiving role while starring on specials. Then Tyreek Hill got hurt in Week 1. Hardman was thrust into a larger role, playing at least 48 percent of offensive snaps over the season’s first seven weeks. Once Hill and Sammy Watkins got on the field together, Hardman’s role dropped before buoying in December, highlighted by 40 combined snaps in Weeks 16 an 17.
While his offensive role has been lesser than Samuel’s, Hardman’s impact on games has been felt all the same. Of any player with at least 25 receptions this season, the former Georgia standout led the league with 20.8 yards per reception. The statistic is a function of Patrick Mahomes, Hardman’s 4.33 speed and the blinding weapons around him.
All told, Hardman amassed 1,426 total yards (538 receiving, 17 rushing, 871 returning) and seven touchdowns.
“Mecole brought a two-headed monster to the Chiefs, man,” Hill said. “When you add another guy who can stretch the field vertically, that puts a lot of pressure on the defense. They can’t just double two guys anymore. They can’t double (Travis) Kelce, they can’t double Sammy (Watkins), they can’t double me. They also have to worry about the other 4.2 guy on the field.”
Throughout the year, Hardman has authored game-changing plays, but the Pro Bowl return man been at his best late in the season.
In Week 17, the Chiefs trailed the Los Angeles Chargers 14-10 in the third quarter. Playing for the second seed, Hardman gave Kansas City a lead it wouldn’t relinquish with a 104-yard kickoff return touchdown.
Two weeks later in the AFC Divisional round against the Houston Texans, the Chiefs fell behind 24-0 at Arrowhead Stadium. Hardman took the ensuing kickoff back 58 yards to the Houston 42-yard line. Over the next nine minutes, Kansas City scored 28 unanswered points en route to a 51-31 triumph.
In the AFC Championship Game against the Tennessee Titans, it was Hardman making a game-altering play once more. In the fourth quarter, with the Chiefs nursing a 35-24 lead, Mahomes went deep to his rookie on 3rd-and-10, who had beaten his man in coverage. The result was a 41-yard pass interference call, allowing Kansas City to burn another two minutes before pinning the Titans deep in their own end.
For Hardman, the journey this season leaves him feeling as though his rookie days are behind him. He’s been put to the test throughout and passed, giving the Chiefs one more weapon in multiple facets.
“I think I came in and fit in perfectly,” Hardman said. “They welcomed me with open arms. I had no problem vibing with the guys in the receiver room or any of the other players. Coach Reid was attracted to me, (general manager Brett) Veach loved me, coach (Eric Bieniemy), we got off on the right foot, so everything happened right and clicked like it was supposed to.”
Samuel is more likely to provide a fantastic offensive showing. Yet Hardman’s ability to flip the game in an instant could be the ultimate weapon in Super Bowl 54.
Before game’s end, both will have their say.