The Brandon Aiyuk resurgence year may soon be upon us. Word out of the San Francisco 49ers’ training camp from not only reporters but new starting quarterback Trey Lance has indicated that the third-year receiver could play a major role in the team’s offense in 2022. That’s big news, if not a little surprising given all of the attention fellow receiver Deebo Samuel has gotten since his breakout year in 2021.
That news shouldn’t be too surprising though. If anything was surprising, it was Samuel’s sudden production outbreak as both a receiver and rusher last year. Going into the 2021 season, it was Aiyuk who seemed poised to burst onto the scene as one of the NFL’s top receivers.
Let’s back up for a second here to add some context. The 49ers drafted Samuel in the second round in 2019, the year before they took Aiyuk in the first. Samuel got his career off to a good start with a solid rookie year. The playmaking ability he’d shown off in college thanks to his explosiveness, great route-running, and good hands were all on display in 2019. He finished his rookie season with 802 receiving yards, second on the team, and 159 rushing yards with six total scores.
In 2020, San Francisco made the move up to the 25th overall pick to select Aiyuk. This wasn’t an indictment on Samuel by any means. If anything, it was an indictment on the rest of the receivers; there weren’t any other pass-catchers on the depth chart behind Samuel that really moved the needle, so moving up for a guy considered to be among the best receiving talents in this class made sense for the 49ers.
When the hamstring injury trouble from Samuel’s past resurfaced in his second season, the move to take Aiyuk looked even better. Despite missing four games himself, the rookie Aiyuk led all 49ers’ receivers with 748 yards and five touchdowns. He was a great fit for the Shanahan offensive scheme of “get the receiver the ball quick and let them create” thanks to his electric speed, explosiveness, and great field vision. In truth, he was everything the 49ers could have asked for in a No. 1 wide receiver, especially with Samuel missing so much time.
Cut to 2021, and it was instead Samuel whose production exploded. Not only did he put up more than 600 yards more than his rookie season with 1,405 of them, but he also led the league in yards per catch (18.2) and turned into a dual-threat machine as a dominant rusher as well. In addition to his 77 catches and six receiving touchdowns, Samuel had 59 rushes for 365 yards and eight rushing touchdowns. His ridiculous 1,770 yards from scrimmage were the third-most in the NFL in 2021, and he unsurprisingly won first-team All-Pro recognition and his first Pro Bowl nod.
Quietly at the same time, Aiyuk put together a strong second season of his own, improving on his rookie numbers in most notable categories—there was more yardage, fewer drops, and just as many touchdowns. Thanks to the hype around Samuel, Aiyuk got much less attention for a second consecutive strong season.
That’s what makes the buzz surrounding Aiyuk out of training camp so intriguing. The third-year receiver spent an offseason working with Lance, his young, new starting quarterback. That seems to have paid off, as ESPN’s Nick Wagoner recently indicated that Aiyuk has been the most consistent performer for the 49ers on offense thus far.
Aiyuk has built up every tool he’s shown off in the past from his strong footwork to explosiveness to sure hands. Though we didn’t get to see Aiyuk in action in the preseason and may not see him until the regular season begins, all signs are pointing toward his biggest season yet. Aiyuk’s strong chemistry with a new quarterback that can sling it downfield and his outstanding skill set seems to make that all but a certainty.
Even though Samuel has become a bigger name, especially with his big, new contract, we shouldn’t be all too surprised if it’s Aiyuk leading the 49ers in receiving yards and catches at the end of the year.
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