SANTA CLARA, Calif. — As recently as Friday morning, the San Francisco 49ers held out hope that wide receiver Deebo Samuel would be able to practice before Sunday’s season opener against the Arizona Cardinals.
As it turns out, the Niners won’t have Samuel for at least the first three games. San Francisco placed Samuel, who is working his way back from a Jones fracture in his left foot, on injured reserve on Saturday afternoon.
In a normal season, that would mean Samuel would have to miss at least six weeks before he could return to practice and eight weeks before he could return to games and the Niners would be able to designate only two players to return.
This year, the rules have changed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The new rules allow a player going on injured reserve to return after missing three games and teams can bring back an unlimited number of players from injured reserve throughout the season.
If Samuel is back in the shortest window, he would be eligible to play for the first time this season on Oct. 4 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
On Friday, Niners coach Kyle Shanahan was asked why the team hadn’t decided to put Samuel on injured reserve at the outset of the week since he was unable to practice all week. Shanahan indicated there had been some confusion about what the changed roster rules would and would not allow.
“Because we believed he had a good chance to play this week,” Shanahan said. “It didn’t go the way we hoped … We felt there was a chance, so to make a decision that would be three weeks when we thought he did have a chance … Also, it’s something with the rules that because it happened before training camp started, which is considered a non-football injury, there was some reason we couldn’t do that, either.”
That initial confusion came about because it was unclear whether Samuel could start the season on injured reserve after he was on the non-football injury list during training camp. But the NFL clarified and adjusted the rule Thursday night, allowing Samuel to land on injured reserve now with the opportunity to return after missing three games.
Samuel sustained the injury at a workout in Nashville in June. He will miss Sunday’s game against Arizona and then back-to-back contests in New York against the Jets and Giants, both of which will take place on an artificial surface.
Without Samuel, the Niners have an open roster spot. Against the Cardinals, they are likely to turn to a group that includes Kendrick Bourne, Trent Taylor and Dante Pettis to pick up the slack. Rookie Brandon Aiyuk could also figure into the mix, presuming he plays after being listed as questionable with a hamstring injury. Aiyuk practiced on a limited basis on Thursday and Friday.
San Francisco did not immediately use its open roster spot to promote a wideout (Kevin White, Jauan Jennings or River Cracraft) from the practice squad or make an outside addition.
The 49ers did, however, promote center Hroniss Grasu and cornerback Dontae Johnson to fill their two additional roster spots that the new roster rules allow.
With center Ben Garland questionable with an ankle injury, Grasu could be asked to play or even start against the Cardinals. Johnson offers additional depth with cornerback Jason Verrett (hamstring) already ruled out. Grasu and Johnson can return to the practice squad after Sunday’s game without having to clear waivers under the league’s new roster rules.