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Herm Edwards on 49ers rookie Brandon Aiyuk: ‘When he has the ball in his hands, you’re not catching him’

ASU head coach and NFL veteran shares what Niners fans can expect from Aiyuk — and what he needs to work on at the pro level

Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The expectations for San Francisco 49ers first-round pick Brandon Aiyuk are high. General manager John Lynch traded up to select the receiver with the 25th pick, looking to fill the hole left by Emmanuel Sanders’ departure in free agency. The Niners are hoping Aiyuk can come in and have an immediate impact on a team with Super Bowl aspirations.

Aiyuk spent two seasons playing under former NFL player and coach Herm Edwards at Arizona State University.

Edwards has done it all when it comes to football. The 66-year-old was an undrafted player coming out of San Diego State in 1976, but found a home with the Philadelphia Eagles. Edwards played nine seasons in Philly before spending parts of his final year with both the Los Angeles Rams and Atlanta Falcons.

Following his playing career, Edwards spent five seasons as coach of the New York Jets, winning the AFC East title in 2002, he also led the Jets to the playoffs in 2001 and 2004. His final NFL coaching stint came with the Kansas City Chiefs from 2006-2008, before joining ESPN as an analyst in 2009.

Edwards shared his thoughts on Aiyuk’s time at ASU, and what 49ers fan can expect from the receiver going into the 2020 season.

Niners Nation: Brandon transferred to ASU prior to your first season as head coach in 2018, what was your initial impression of him going into the year?

Herm Edwards: He had a lot of talent. He played a little bit of corner in junior college, and there was talk early when we recruited him about possibly playing him at corner. I said, ‘no, let’s put him at receiver because we need someone with skill as far as with the ball in his hand.’ He was raw coming out of JC, but you could tell he’s a very skillful player, very competitive guy.

He has great body control and caught the ball with his hands, which says something to me. When you see them catch with their hands, it shows he’s confident. He has great length too. He’s not 6’3, but his wingspan and the way he can go up and catch balls and compete for the ball was going to give him an edge.

He comes in the first year, and he’s playing, but we had another pretty good receiver in N’Keal Harry, that ended up going in the first round of last year’s draft. He was getting most of the balls, we had a good running back that led the conference in rushing, so it was built around those guys and the quarterback. He didn’t get a lot of catches, but you could see that he had potential and he was learning the speed of the game, which happens with every guy coming from high school and JC, so it caught him by surprise a little bit. But when he came in this year, especially the Michigan State game, that’s when you could see him become the guy that everyone kind of looked at as far as drafting that high.

Explosive, a lot of confidence, and a very competitive player. He doesn’t like losing at anything. That’s just his DNA. I think Kyle [Shanahan] does a great job of calling plays, not only that, dictating certain situations for matchups, and he’s [Aiyuk] a guy, if you get him in space, he’s a good runner with the ball in his hands.

His production went way up in the second season, what was the biggest aspect of his game that he improved going into 2019?

Basically, I told him he had to be N’Keal [Harry]: it’s your job now, and he understood it; he wanted to be that guy. It’s not like he didn’t play his first season; he didn’t get a lot of balls. He had 62 this year, but it was for over 1,100 yards, with a balanced offense and a freshman quarterback. That dictated some things, too, in terms of his numbers.

He’s always searching for knowledge and always wants to get better. That’s a credit to him because he understood going to the next level, it’s a whole different ball game. What he’s going to be asked to do, all those things are critical to success in the NFL. When he came back this year, he had the drive to be the best, and that is something you can’t teach a player. They either have it, or they don’t.”

Is there a former or current NFL player that Aiyuk reminds you of?

Now, I’m not saying he’s going to be him, but Jerry Rice. Brandon ran 4.50 40-yard dash, but when he has the ball in his hands, you’re not catching him. Jerry wasn’t the fastest guy running normally, but when you put him on the field and get him the ball, he’s gone. That’s what Brandon does.

His ability to make plays after the catch is something that Kyle will be able to take advantage of. Another guy he reminds of his Desean Jackson, who is great when you get him the ball. Desean is a great return guy, and so is Brandon. He will take that skill to the next level. With Brandon, he’s a playmaker. He has that hunger and desire to make something happen. You will see that determination him.

What are some parts of Aiyuk’s game that he will have to work on in the NFL?

One thing that every receiver going from college to the pros has to get used to is the press coverage and getting off the line. You have big, physical men getting in your face and slowing you down right off the line, so Brandon will have to adjust to that, but like I said, every receiver who makes it to the NFL has to learn how to deal with it.

Another thing is the wider field. In the pros, a lot of plays are in the middle of the field, while in college, you’re playing near the numbers. And the speed of the game. It’s something all players moving from high school to college from JC to Div. 1, from college to the pros, have to adjust to. Things move at a pace these guys aren’t used to, but spending time getting better each day, especially with the fundamentals, will make that transition easier, and Brandon will do that.

Brandon learning now to sharpen his routes and use the tools he has to read defenders at the NFL level is something that will come with time and experience; it doesn’t just happen overnight. He has to get a bit stronger as well, but again, all of this stuff is coachable, and I’m sure Kyle and his staff will teach him the little things he needs to learn to be successful at the next level.

What is Aiyuk like off the field?

You’re getting a guy who will be great in the community. He comes from a great family, so he’s centered. His family did a great job instilling the right values in him. Brandon likes to keep to himself, but he’s also curious. He will ask questions when they need to be asked because he’s eager to learn.

That is one thing about Brandon; he wants to be the best at he what he does. I loved that about him while he was with us. He’s curious and willing to learn the things he has to do to get better. So I think with Brandon, you will see a man who wants to put the time in to improve each day. He’s confident in himself but stays humble in the process.

The 49ers are getting not just a very talented football player, but a very good person as well. I think he’s going to fit in there great.


High praise straight from Aiyuk’s most recent coach. What type of numbers do you think Aiyuk will put up in his rookie season?