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Aiyuk led college football in yards on this route, but it’s not the route you’re thinking

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 15 Arizona State at San Diego State

ESPN’s Seth Walder looked at the best route for each of the 16 wideouts drafted in the 2020 NFL Draft. Their best route was determined by “yards per route run relative to other receivers in the class and other receivers in college football.” For San Francisco 49ers first-round draft pick Brandon Aiyuk, his best routes lined up perfectly with what Kyle Shanahan wants to do on offense:

Draft/college: Selected No. 25 out of Arizona State

Best route: Screen/quick routes

The 49ers ran roughly a league-average rate of receiver screens last year, but overall, they run quite a few screens, so it’s a pretty reasonable guess that some of those will be diverted to Aiyuk in 2020. One has to imagine coach Kyle Shanahan will scheme up ways to get the rookie receiver the ball quickly to take advantage of his run-after-the-catch ability. Among qualifying receivers, Aiyuk ranked second in college football in yards after catch per reception over the past two seasons, behind only Alabama’s DeVonta Smith.

By the way: Aiyuk ran 17 posts with astronomical efficiency and actually led college football in yards per post-run if we’re willing to accept that small sample.

Let’s start with down the field. Much has been made about the 49ers’ lack of downfield passing in 2019. San Francisco finished 31st in downfield passing rate last season. Having a true vertical threat could change that. Good news: Aiyuk is a downfield threat—a legitimate one at that. Here is how Aiyuk will get open: He’ll sneak up on you with his initial burst off the line of scrimmage, and before you know it, he’s broken your cushion. From there, it’s a foot race, and that usually doesn’t end up well for defenders. Aiyuk will need to improve his physicality down the field, but coaching and experience will come into play. I could see the 49ers offense hitting big on a few play-action posts to Aiyuk next year.

The reason Aiyuk will be a vertical threat next year is that cornerbacks won’t be able to play loose coverage. San Francisco will have plenty of “free yards” if defenses don’t play tight coverage. Time and time in college Arizona State would throw either a “now” screen, and Aiyuk 1-on-1 with space is bad news for cornerbacks. Even when ASU would set up a screen, Aiyuk would find a way to break a tackle and, at worst, turn it into a positive play for the offense.

I’ve seen plenty of pushback for trading up for Aiyuk, and a lot of it revolves around a fourth-round pick. Not often does Aiyuk’s fit come up. Again, for what Kyle wants to do on offense, there wasn’t a better wideout available in the 20s. Aiyuk supposedly wowed during the Nashville workouts. I’m excited to see him, and I’m hoping Shanahan “throws him into the fire,” and we don’t have to wait until midseason to see Aiyuk get ample opportunities.