Although the 49ers only had five total draft pick selections, they had an eventful draft weekend, including a handful of moves made on day one in the first round. The draft started with them trading out of the 13th pick with Tampa Bay to move back one place, where they selected Javon Kinlaw. They acquired the 14th pick and the 117th pick in the fourth round for the move. They then used the 31st pick overall, packaged together with newly acquired 117th pick and their 179th pick in the fifth round to move up to pick number 25 in the first.
Still with me? Good.
With the 25th pick, they swapped spots with Minnesota and selected receiver Brandon Aiyuk out of Arizona State, a move that surely surprised many given that Oklahoma’s Cee Dee Lamb and Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy were still on the board when they made their first pick at 14. Head coach, Kyle Shanahan’s reasoning, was simple:
“I am an offensive coach and all I want are, I mean it’s more fun for me in an offense with offensive playmakers, but nothing’s more fun than having a defense like we had last year. And I think that gives you the best chance to go to the Super Bowl. And I think that’s why John has a Super Bowl ring. I think that’s why a lot of people have been on the top defenses too. And if we have that top defense, I think it’s easier to manufacture it on offense where not many people manufacture a defense. That defense better be more talented than almost everyone they’re going against.”
The offense is built around receivers who can separate and gain yards, allowing them to control the clock and move the ball downfield. Aiyuk is known for his ability to run after the catch and taking the top off of a defense.
Aiyuk fits the current mold of a prototypical Shanahan receiver in that he can create separation on his routes and create yards after the catch. He’s not a burner who possesses elite speed (he ran a 4.5 40-yard dash at the combine), but he frequently beat defenders deep anyways. He can win in other ways too, and his tape shows the necessary nuance that he needs to excel at the next level with his route running.
His 81-inch wingspan enables him to catch virtually anything thrown at him and he sits in the 89th percentile in arm length. Physically, he has the tools Shanahan is looking for.
Strengths: Yards after the catch and fluidity in route running
His best trait by far on film is how he creates yards after the catch. He has a good feel for space and timing, doesn’t slow down through his cuts, can effectively “stem and stack,” and is tough to bring down.
As a result, he hauled in 65 passes for 1192 yards and eight touchdowns in his senior season at Arizona State. It’s tough to say whether or not Aiyuk will have the same effect on the offense that Emmanuel Sanders brought when they executed a midseason trade for him, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to manufacture offense with Aiyuk instead of Sanders. Shanahan thinks he can do it all when he stated that:
“He has a certain skillset where I think is similar to [WR] Dante’s [Pettis] in terms of you wouldn’t just peg him at one position. You know, he can do all three. He can play the X, he can play the Z, he can play the F. He’s got the speed to get on top. He’s got the quickness, to play in the slot. He’s got the toughness to go over in the middle.”
The first thing that stands out is his ability to separate, whether he gets the ball or not. His footwork is very good in his release, yet he still has room to improve his release against press coverage. But what he possesses now should suffice in an offense that values separation over anything else.
On this touchdown catch against USC, Aiyuk uses a series of moves to get the defender to commit to a fade route before cutting back inside underneath his leverage. He releases slightly inside for two steps, jabs out like he’s going to run an end-zone fade route, then slices underneath as soon as the defender reads a fade stem and presses outside. Aiyuk is wide open for the easy touchdown pitch and catch.
The second best trait he possesses is the ability to create yards after the catch (YAC). One of the reasons he creates so much YAC is because he is a fluid route runner who doesn’t waste any movements on his route.
Here against Colorado, Aiyuk made a house call on a 77-yard catch and ran in the second quarter. He’s running a post route and quickly eats the off-coverage defender’s cushion using a “stem” technique where he drives straight at the defender, causing the defender to react late to his break.
He plants his outside foot and gets the defender to react before breaking back inside, catching the pass, and immediately turning upfield. He never slows down during his break.
He caught a pass and ran for a touchdown on a similar play call two weeks later against Washington State. Notice how he drives straight for the defender before cutting. This is to minimize the time the defender has to react. He also makes a couple of defenders miss their tackles.
While he can take those intermediate post routes for touchdowns with his ability to run, he can also create yards by using the space he has when he doesn’t have the opportunity to run for long touchdowns.
In this clip against Michigan State, he ran hitch routes that show his awareness in space to create yards and get upfield quickly. He showcases that wingspan by plucking the ball out of the air, coming down controlled, pointing his feet upfield, and working away from the defenders. The flat defender and corner both have inside leverage, so he instinctively readies to turn outside as he catches.
Similarly, in the second clip in the video above, a hitch route against Washington State, as soon as he catches the pass, he senses defender leverage is on his outside shoulder (defenders know the receiver on a hitch will turn outside to get upfield), so he gives a quick plant to the outside before turning inside to get a few more yards.
And it’s not just downfield routes he can turn into YAC. Arizona State utilized him on a variety of screen passes to get the ball into his hands quickly to let him work. Here he catches a jailbreak screen, and it’s off to the races. He turns this into a long touchdown run primarily because he is a fluid and smooth runner that doesn’t waste movement. He seemingly never slows down once the ball is in his hands.
Where he can improve
The biggest issue with Aiyuk is his get off against press coverage. He can easily win on reps where the defender doesn’t jam him in man coverage, but when a defender gets his hands on him, he struggles to fight through it, dropping his hands and exposing his chest plate.
I spoke briefly with scouting analyst and resident wide receiver expert and coach Brad Kelly about these issues. Kelly stated that “dropping your hands vs. press - mortal sin. On top of him loading his stance before trying to move.”
In the clip above, you can see Aiyuk “load his stance” where instead of generating power through his lean and takeoff, he sort of leans back on a false step with his front foot. Instead of a quick powerful drive step forward, his first step exposes him to a jam because he exposes his chest plate and drops his hands to maintain balance.
Similarly, even if he can get a somewhat free release, the second he has to take on a defender’s contact, he leaves himself prone to a jam that throws off his route’s timing. The quarterback initially looks the other way, but a lack of hand usage to fend off contact here prevents him from getting into his route quickly enough, allowing the hook defender to eliminate it by sinking under him.
Perhaps the biggest concern, according to Kelly, and one briefly mentioned above, is “loading his stance up just to free release. NFL caliber vertical threats (his best asset as a route runner/receiver) can’t waste time at the line of scrimmage.”
In this clip with Arizona State facing a 3rd and 4, the play is called to go to Aiyuk on a quick pivot route. As the snap goes off, Aiyuk is late out of his stance and loads his legs rather than driving forward. This again throws off the timing as the quarterback looks to throw to Aiyuk right away. Instead, he has to pull it down and try to scramble because Aiyuk is not into his break yet.
In part two, we’ll look at the ways he might fit into Shanahan’s offense, and what routes in the tree he is capable of running.