Short pass plays are great because they are easier to complete, but they also can force offenses into long drives that invite mistakes. Long pass plays are great because they allow offenses to leap downfield and into scoring position, but they are harder to complete.

You know what’s really great? A player who can consistently take short pass plays and turn them into long pass plays.

Enter Deebo Samuel, the NFL’s reigning YAC king.

YAC, of course, stands for yards after catch, and Samuel’s unparalleled ability to gain them — by evading, shrugging off or simply steamrolling would-be tacklers — has made him an unusually effective weapon this season for the San Francisco 49ers. The third-year wide receiver’s game-breaking talent also has him at or near the top of the league in several pass-catching statistics, and it is among the reasons for hope that the 4-5 49ers may yet make a postseason run in a top-heavy NFC.

If San Francisco does make it to the playoffs, the team may look back at Monday’s 31-10 win over the rival Los Angeles Rams as a turning point. Samuel led the way with 133 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns, one after a reception and one after taking a handoff.

Asked after the game whether he had ever had a teammate who could be deployed so well as both a wide receiver and a running back, 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo replied: “Honestly, I haven’t. I haven’t seen many of them in the NFL, either. I mean, it’s a unique talent, just [the] durability of the guy, the route-running ability, the mental capacity just to keep everything in his head that he has to do on a week-to-week basis. It’s really impressive.

“The dude can play multiple positions, and he’s earned everything he’s gotten.”

Samuel, sturdily built at 6 feet and 215 pounds, could well earn first-team all-pro accolades if he keeps this up. He enters Week 11 second only to Rams star Cooper Kupp in receiving yards (979 to Kupp’s 1,141), and he is third in all-purpose yards, which take into account his 58 on the ground and 75 as a kick returner.

But some of football’s more advanced statistics show how truly special Samuel has been, starting with the aforementioned YAC.

Samuel’s 518 yards after catch not only lead all NFL players, they are more than all but 33 others have in total receiving yards. Perhaps even more impressive is his league-leading mark of 9.6 YAC per reception (per Pro Football Focus) because it reflects the fact that Samuel isn’t targeted as heavily as top wide receivers such as Kupp, Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill and thus has had to be especially efficient with his touches. By comparison, the next highest in that category among wide receivers with at least 40 receptions, the Kansas City Chiefs’ Mecole Hardman (7.5) and the Cincinnati Bengals’ Ja’Marr Chase (7.3), lag by more than two yards.

Little wonder, then, that Samuel also leads all players in average YAC over expectation (4.6, per Next Gen Stats). Among players with at least 40 targets, only Chase (4.1) is even close.

And to think, Samuel wasn’t even universally assumed to be the 49ers’ top wide receiver coming into the season. Hampered by foot and groin injuries last season, Samuel played in just seven games, and his extended absences opened the door for 2020 first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk to gain steam.

Samuel’s dominance this season, though, has pushed Aiyuk into a complementary role, as has the typically strong performance of star tight end George Kittle. In 2020, Samuel showed flashes of what made him so compelling as a rookie the year before, but this season is serving as quite the reminder that he frequently looked like the NFL’s next big thing when he first hit the league. Selected by the 49ers in the second round of the 2019 draft, the South Carolina standout averaged 14.1 yards on 57 receptions and 11.4 yards on 14 carries, with six total touchdowns, as San Francisco made it to the Super Bowl.

“You’ve got an idea when you draft people, but we didn’t know how good he was at that stuff,” San Francisco Coach Kyle Shanahan said this week about incorporating Samuel right away into his team’s rushing attack. “Deebo, you didn’t totally know. But you got to see him run screens and how physical he was.

“It was how he finished screens that we liked so much. He really brought it to people when there was nowhere to go.”

Samuel’s knack for YAC was never more crucial Monday than on a fourth-and-six play from the Los Angeles 40-yard line in the fourth quarter. Samuel caught an 11-yard pass, at which point he was surrounded by Rams defenders. By attaining an important first down, Samuel already had made the play a success, but he turned it into so much more by turning upfield, turning on the jets and taking it to the end zone for a backbreaking touchdown.

The dramatic upgrade of that pass play, from an 11-yard completion to a 40-yard score, was emblematic of the singular value Samuel has brought to the 49ers. Among all players with 40-plus targets, his average of 18.1 yards per catch is second only to that of Chase (19.0). However, Samuel’s average depth of target (aDOT), 8.4 yards, is far lower than Chase’s mark of 14.7.

In fact, among the top 20 players in yards per reception with a minimum of 20 targets, Samuel is the only one whose aDOT is in the single digits. No other players in the top 50 come even close to doubling their aDOT with their yards per catch, yet Samuel goes beyond even that remarkable feat by tacking on nearly a first down’s worth of yardage from wherever he happens to corral a pass.

It all has made life much, much easier for Garoppolo, Shanahan and everyone else associated with the 49ers’ offense. It also has put Samuel very much into the conversation for NFL offensive player of the year, particularly if his extraordinary efficiency, combined with San Francisco’s relatively easy strength of schedule the rest of the way, helps the team get hot in the second half and barge into the postseason.

Now that would give the rest of us something to yak about.