The impact of veteran leadership is invaluable to an NFL locker room, especially during a modified offseason as such. The 49ers have witnessed first-hand the effects Joe Staley, Richard Sherman, Jimmy Garoppolo and others have had on the camaraderie of a team.
During his short stint in San Francisco, Emmanuel Sanders was just as important to the cohesiveness of the locker room as he was for his performance on the field. The 49ers lacked a reliable veteran pass catcher prior to his arrival. Following a midseason trade with the Denver Broncos, Sanders stepped in seamlessly, amassing 36 receptions for 502 yards and three touchdowns in his 10 games with San Francisco.
A prime benefactor of Sanders' arrival was then-rookie reciever Deebo Samuel. Prior to the Sanders trade, Samuel averaged three catches and 33 yards a game along with one touchdown. After his arrival, Samuel saw an uptick in production, averaging four catches and 63 yards a game with five additional touchdowns.
San Francisco suffered a huge blow to their 13th-ranked passing offense with Sanders opting to leave in free agency. While it's possible to replace players with similar talent, it's challenging to replace leadership qualities of certain contributors. However, with a vacancy of veteran presence among the 49ers receiving corps, Samuel appears willing to assume a larger role in his second season in San Francisco.
"I think Emmanuel played a major role at that," Samuel admitted. "He's like, 'Bro, you don't notice you're a leader just by your play. Just imagine how big of a leader you can be when you're more verbal and able to coach players on certain things.' So I think Emmanuel played a good part of that. I'm not a very talkative guy. I like to lead by example. Being more verbal is something I've been working on lately."
The 49ers spent the offseason replenishing the roster from key losses in Sanders and several other veterans. The 49ers made an attempt to fill the role of Sanders by trading up to select Arizona State wideout Brandon Aiyuk with the 25th-overall pick in this year's draft.
In an attempt to aid the rookie, Samuel reached out to receivers coach Wes Welker to acquire Aiyuk's phone number immediately following the draft to lend a hand in adjusting to the abnormalities of an unconventional offseason.
"At the beginning of the year, I was still learning and figuring things out," Samuel recalled. "As the season goes on, you progress and become better at listening to the verbiage, knowing where to line up, getting lined up faster and not thinking as much.
"I knew how hard it is to be as good as you want to be in this offense without thinking. So, I gave him a call and was like, 'Hey, man, I just want you to know, it's going to take time.'"
As of now, rookies are much more restricted than years' prior. Video conference calls have become the norm for communicating with the 49ers coaching staff amid the Coronavirus pandemic, and rookies are now forced to adapt to a virtual integration to their new teams in addition to the other pressures and responsibilities of being first-year players.
"He's got it harder than I do now because I was around the coaches and able to use the coaches as much as possible," Samuel added. "With (Aiyuk), it's just a Zoom call. It's kind of hard to listen to a guy telling you what to do and not being able to go out there on the field. So, I was just like, 'You just need to lock in and pay attention. I know it's hard, but if you need anything, you're free to call any one of us – me, KB (Kendrick Bourne) or even Wes.'"
Despite the loss of several veterans this offseason, the 49ers believe they have the right players ready to step up. Samuel and the rest of the 2019 draft class, like fellow second-year player Nick Bosa, are prepared to help pick up the slack heading into the 2020 season.
"We still have plenty of leadership on the team," Bosa said last week. "But for the guys like me and Deebo, and Dre Greenlaw, rookies that played a lot, we're not just deer in headlights anymore. We know the routine. We know how an NFL season works. And now we can really just take the next step."
Bosa, Samuel and Greenlaw were all instrumental to the success of the 49ers 2019 season. Their familiarity and leadership could be all the more important at another run at the title amid this modified offseason.