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NFL Draft

Brandon Aiyuk’s Rookie Success Deserves More Attention

  • The Draft Network
  • December 24, 2020
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The San Francisco 49ers have once again been dismantled by injuries. After they turned a four-win 2018 season into a 13-win year that ended with a Super-Bowl loss, the 49ers entered 2020 with high expectations. They drafted well, bolstering their defensive line with tackle Javon Kinlaw and added much-needed talent to their receiving corps with Brandon Aiyuk.

Aiyuk, who was selected with the 25th overall pick, wasn’t the best receiver out of this class, and in the 2020 season, he hasn’t been the most dominant. Justin Jefferson is a top pass-catching candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year with the production he’s had in Minnesota. Chase Claypool was hot early for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Henry Ruggs III also garnered attention early in the season after being the first receiver taken in the draft. Aiyuk, who barely made it into the first round, was passed up in favor of a few other pass-catchers, including the Dallas Cowboys’ CeeDee Lamb and the Denver Broncos’ Jerry Jeudy. But no receiver, excluding Jefferson, has made more of an impact on their team than Aiyuk—and even then, there was a stretch when Aiyuk was more productive than Jefferson.

Part of San Francisco’s problem this season, last season, and the one before has been injuries. Whether an injury took out quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, defensive playmakers, or obliterated the receiver room, the 49ers have rarely ever been healthy. Injuries to the receiving corps and a lack of playmakers down the depth chart affected San Francisco last year despite its overwhelming success. The team addressed that with Aiyuk, an Arizona State product that made the first team All-Pac-12 in his second and final season in the Valley.

With Deebo Samuel in and out of the lineup and tight end George Kittle missing a lot of time, Aiyuk was promoted to WR1; it’s a role that wasn’t out of his reach but, without numerous injuries, one he likely wouldn’t have been placed into this season. Now, with added responsibility, Aiyuk has been quietly putting together an impressive rookie season. 

In the 49ers’ recent loss to the Dallas Cowboys, Aiyuk (59) broke Samuel’s rookie record (57) for the most receptions in franchise history. This season, Aiyuk has totaled 733 yards and 15 touchdowns. He’s averaging 12.4 yards per reception and recorded a touchdown in four of the team’s last five games all while overcoming bad quarterback play.

Instead of getting a rookie for added depth, the 49ers got a reliable receiver who has crept up the stat sheet to lead all pass-catchers in San Francisco. Aiyuk’s efforts have earned praise from former 49ers’ great, Jerry Rice, who, like many others, believes he’s just scratching the surface.

I've really got confidence in him that he's only going to get better,” Rice said recently on The Morning Roast. “He's going to continue to work hard, and he's going to get more looks and more opportunities. And I think next year is going to be a really big year for him.” 

Rice added: “It's just like my rookie season. You try to find your way, where you fit in. You try to get acclimated to the playbook and also what you're going to be doing on the football field. And I think next year, he's going to take a major, major leap. And he's going to be more productive and put more points on the board.”

The 49ers are looking like a shell of their 2019 shelves. They’re 5-9, back at the bottom of the NFC West and, obviously, eliminated from the playoff race. For seasons, this team has had bits and pieces of a puzzle but haven’t been able to complete it. Aiyuk won’t solve all of the 49ers’ problems—which start under center—but if he, along with Samuel, Kittle, and the rest of the pass-catchers can stay healthy, they will make a dynamic bunch next season.

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