We look at how the 49ers first-round pick has progressed to becoming the team’s No. 1 receiver.
There were questions about whether trading up for Brandon Aiyuk would be worth it for the San Francisco 49ers this past NFL Draft. Some figured the Niners could use that Day 3 pick to add depth. After a season where over 25 players have been injured, there will be fans that still believe moving up for Aiyuk was a bad idea. Let’s walk through how the Niners rookie wideout has progressed this season and why he’s WR1 on this roster.
A shaky start
Aiyuk missed Week 1 against Arizona after suffering a hamstring strain that kept him out of the training camp’s final weeks. During his first game against the Jets Week 2, Aiyuk resembled more of a “chicken with his head cut off” who didn’t look like he knew what he was doing or had a plan as a route runner. Aiyuk lined up wrong on a couple of snaps. In his routes, he was all athlete and zero technique. Aiyuk caught two passes for 21 yards, one of which was not intended for him.
If you go back and watch that game, Kendrick Bourne is much more decisive as a route runner, from avoiding contact from the defensive back to using tempo to get open. This is to be expected for Aiyuk, as he hadn’t played in a professional game. There’s no way to simulate NFL game speed, and Aiyuk found that out.
“Oh, that’s why you traded up for him”
San Francisco went into Week 3, missing George Kittle, Raheem Mostert, and there were already without Deebo Samuel. That meant a heavy workload was on deck for Aiyuk, whether he was ready or not. Aiyuk received two carries on the first drive, which gave us an idea that Kyle Shanahan was going to lean on the rookie in this game.
Those first touches seemed to help Aiyuk, who went from “thinking” to “playing.” Shanahan moved Aiyuk around the formation more, and he went from running “robot routes,”—which I would describe as running the route how it’s drawn up on the whiteboard—to including his athleticism and feet to get open.
Aiyuk finished Week 3 with five receptions on eight targets for 70 yards. He ran in a touchdown and should have had another one in the end zone had it not been for a pass thrown behind Aiyuk. The Giants game was our first glimpse of how special Aiyuk could be.
Now do it against man coverage
Week 4 never happened, and we will not discuss it.
The next three opponents for Aiyuk would see three teams that feature above-average cornerbacks or defenses that run predominant man coverage. Against Miami, Aiyuk looked like a rookie.
Xavien Howard ate Aiyuk’s lunch. There were multiple plays where Aiyuk was still trying to fight through press coverage a few yards down the field while Jimmy Garoppolo was sitting in the pocket and scanning the defense. I talked about having a plan earlier, and Aiyuk did not have one against the talented Howard. If there was a game that forced Aiyuk to recognize that he would not win solely based on his athletic gifts, look no further than Miami.
Aiyuk finished the game with three receptions for 44 yards. One reception came where he had a free release off the line of scrimmage in the slot with the cornerback playing eight yards off. Aiyuk added a 20-yard reception against more soft coverage on a deep curl route.
We all remember the gameplan against the Rams. It called for Garoppolo to get the ball out of his hands and let the Niners playmakers do the heavy lifting. I’m fascinated to see how Shanahan uses Aiyuk next week against the Rams because Los Angeles will force San Francisco to throw the ball down the field.
The moment Aiyuk turned the corner
If Miami was a speed bump for Aiyuk, then New England is when the rookie had his coming-out party. It’s not often you can say a player outperformed his six reception, 115-yard performance, but that was the case in Week 7 for Aiyuk. The Patriots have a trio of smart, athletic cornerbacks who understand leverage and have above average route recognition.
That didn’t matter against Aiyuk.
During Week 7, Aiyuk put all of his flashes from the previous games together. You saw creativity as a route runner combined with tempo, and when you add Aiyuk’s athleticism to the equation, the 49ers had to be smiling from ear-to-ear with this performance. All game, you saw the rookie decisive. He was open, and he knew it.
It’s been some time since San Francisco has had a legitimate deep threat. I don’t mean a one-trick pony ala Marquise Goodwin. I’m talking about a receiver that can threaten you at every level, but cornerbacks fear his speed as well. Aiyuk arguably should’ve had two long receptions for touchdowns in this game had he been targeted. The New England game will always be what we look back on as the game where Aiyuk turned the corner.
What to expect moving forward
Aiyuk has continued his excellence over the past two games, as he’s totaled 15 receptions for 166 yards, with eight of those catches going for first downs. That’s coming by way of shaky QB play and against top cornerbacks. Aiyuk’s first reception against the Saints came against Marshon Lattimore, where the 49ers wideout once again showed his progression as a receiver by widening his stem to create more room on a slant.
It hasn’t all been sunshine and lollipops for Aiyuk. He still needs to use his hands as a receiver. That’s gotten him in trouble. When Aiyuk gets to the top of his route, defenders are rerouting him or throwing Aiyuk’s timing off. If that’s your biggest issue as a rookie, your future is bright.
Aiyuk has shown more in ten games than some receivers have demonstrated in a couple of years. Look no further than New Orleans, where he caught low passes, was comfortable going over the middle and making plays and had tremendous effort laying out to bail out his quarterback.
Young wideouts are coming into the league and hitting the ground running as of late, and Aiyuk is no exception. Next Gen Stats records “average yards of separation.” Aiyuk is averaging 2.9 yards of separation. That figure is identical with Emmanuel Sanders, Stefon Diggs, and higher than Julio Jones, DK Metcalf, and Mike Evans, to name a few. That’s the type of company you want to be around.
Aiyuk has been reliable as a pass-catcher. He has one drop on 36 catchable targets. Aiyuk’s 25 first downs rank 28th among all WRs in the NFL. That’s on 53 targets, where most of the receivers are at least in the 60s. Aiyuk is also in the top-30 among receivers with at least 30 targets in average yards after the catch. The production is there. The progress is there. As more opportunities come his way, Aiyuk will continue to prove why the 49ers were correct to move up for him in the draft.
For the second time in as many years, the Niners struck gold in the NFL Draft at the receiver position.