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Breaking down rookie receiver Brandon Aiyuk part 2: how he fits in the 49ers offense

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In part two we look at the route tree he can run and how he might be used in the 49ers offense.

NCAA Football: Kent State at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

In part one of this series, we covered rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk’s strengths and weaknesses. In part two today, we’ll look at how he fits into the offense by examining his route tree at Arizona State.

As noted in part one of this series, Shanahan stated that it’s not just Aiyuk’s ability to create yards after the catch (YAC) that vaulted him to the top of their receivers list. Shanahan also stated that he could run every route from every position, something that Shanahan highly values as he builds his offense. For one thing, it gives the offense greater flexibility and doesn’t allow opposing teams to cue in on certain route combinations if you have a personnel grouping who can run every route in the tree from every position.

Aiyuk’s route tree at Arizona State included a variety of routes from the slot and out wide. In part one, I showed him running deep post routes, quick slant/glance routes on RPOs, and he was used on a number of screen passes as well. But Aiyuk isn’t limited to just those routes. At Arizona State, he ran a number of deep routes, fades, juke routes, “blaze” outs, and make contested catches whether he’s in the slot or out wide.

Deep routes - Fade

While he doesn’t have the blazing speed you want in a deep threat, he can still effectively create separation on fade routes because of what he does with his footwork and body control. Against Michigan State here, he’s running a fade route against off coverage. He threatens the corner’s inside leverage by running his stem inside at him as if he’s going cut inside.

Instead, gives a quick jab step inside before fading to the sideline. The corner tries to initiate contact but avoids it with a nice arm-over before getting to the sideline to catch the pass.

He scored on a similar play against Oregon when he beat an off-coverage defender with a jab step inside, getting the defender to hesitate for a split second as he ran right by him. He doesn’t lose a step as he swipes through the contact as he sprints past. The pass is in front of him a bit, but his arm length enables him to extend and reach for it without losing a step.

Deep routes - “Skinner” (deep skinny post)

In addition to running efficient fade routes, he also has the ability to sell the fade before cutting to the post. In the Shanahan route tree, this particular route is a called a “widen skinner” route (widen is the tag for running it from a condensed split). On the route, the receiver threatens the leverage of the defender by selling the fade or what Shanahan says is his coaching point to “read takeoff” and then cuts to the post.

As Aiyuk hits the top of his stem, the defender speed turns to run with him vertically down the sideline. Once the defender turns, Aiyuk plants the outside and cuts inside at an angle to the post where he makes the catch for a 56-yard gain.

Deep routes - “Cop” (corner post)

Aiyuk’s fluidity running routes enables him to create separation solely because he doesn’t waste movement. If it sounds like I’m repeating myself here, it’s because it cannot be stressed enough that he is really good at what he does and can do it in a variety of ways.

On this route, one we saw Shanahan run a handful of times last season with George Kittle and Emmanuel Sanders, a “cop” route or corner-post, Aiyuk beats the deep half safety when he sells his corner stem and cuts back on a dime to the post portion of the route.

The safety speed turns, and by that point, it’s hard to recover effectively to cover the route. Aiyuk makes a difficult adjustment on the pass as the throw is the only thing that prevents him from scoring here.

Deep routes - Blaze out and sail/flag

One of the staple deep route features in Shanahan’s offense is the “blaze out” route made famous by Julio Jones when Shanahan was with the Falcons. Blaze out is characterized by a seven-step vertical stem downfield, a cut to the post, then cut back out flat to the sideline.

Aiyuk gets vertical inside the defender’s leverage, cuts to the post, and gets the defender to turn. At this point, the defender doesn’t think a receiver would cut outside due to the leverage in the coverage he has. Still, Aiyuk cuts out flat to the sideline and makes the defender speed turn in the process, creating enough separation for Aiyuk to catch and secure the first down.

Similar to the blaze out, here against Arizona, he runs a flag route, another intermediate range staple in Shanahan’s offense.

Against press coverage, he takes an inside angled release, and once he gets about 10 yards downfield, he cuts out and rolls to about 14-15 yards as he catches the pass. The out cut isn’t ideal as he gets caught up with contact by the defender and stalls out for about one step and nearly throws the timing off, but he still manages to get some separation as the quarterback gets him the ball.

Juke route

Aiyuk possesses the nuance to create space on a variety of short routes because he can effectively sell the route with his eyes and body control.

From the number three on the trips here, Aiyuk is running a juke route. On a juke route, the receiver should jab step and sell an out cut at the top of the stem. Aiyuk throws his whole body into the jab step, looks with his eyes outside, plants, and cuts across the linebacker’s face with inside leverage. The move gave him about a four-yard cushion and put the linebacker on skates in the middle of the field, setting up an easy completion.

These last two plays are good examples of a receiver who understands leverage and coverage rules and knows how to attack them, something that will benefit him well in Shanahan’s offense, an offense designed to break and exploit the rules.

Outlook

The negatives in Aiyuk’s game are definitely correctable with coaching and technique refinement. That may take a little longer than desired due to the closures of team facilities and no scheduled OTA’s at the moment during the coronavirus pandemic and the inability of players to train with coaches.

In my own opinion, the more I watched him, the more I think it was also worth the trade-up because the positives in his game far outweigh the negative. He definitely has big shoes to fill with the departure of Emmanuel Sanders, but manufacturing offense and getting the ball to Aiyuk definitely won’t be an issue for Shanahan. They’ll likely also lean heavily on the run game as Aiyuk develops anyways.

The 49ers took big, but necessary risks with their first two picks with the rewards having huge upside, and we shouldn’t expect a huge drop off offensively. In fact, now, the offense might have more versatility with the injured players returning. Either way, it will be exciting to watch.