It didn’t take San Francisco 49ers rookie wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk long to impress his teammates. On Monday, Deebo Samuel spoke about the first time he saw Aiyuk in action:
“My first time seeing him down in Nashville, I knew he was going to be that guy. I knew he was going to be the player that everyone said and thought he was going to be. Then we got here, you saw the length of his arms, how he takes care of his body and all type of stuff. What he did this year was expected from my end. Next year the sky is the limit for both of us.”
I remember seeing Aiyuk in training camp. He was the only wide receiver that could run past Emmanuel Moseley, Jason Verrett, and Ahkello Witherspoon. There was one play during a random practice in August where Jimmy Garoppolo threw it to Aiyuk in the end zone where the pass was intentionally high so that Aiyuk could elevate above the defense.
Those types of plays became the norm as Aiyuk began to get more comfortable in the offense. Then, Aiyuk suffered a hamstring injury. You would have never been able to tell based on the play. He ran a go route, and the pass was broken up. There was minimal contact between Verrett and Aiyuk, and the little contact that did occur felt innocuous.
Aiyuk’s hamstring injury sidelined him for a month, and he was forced to miss the first game of the season. Against the Jets, Aiyuk looked like a rookie who had no idea what he was doing. That didn’t last long, and had Aiyuk had backup quarterbacks for most of his rookie season, Jerry Rice’s franchise rookie receiving number would have been broken this year.
The preseason injury setback Aiyuk enough to where you got a sense during his exit interview that he was still bothered by it. Aiyuk said that he learned a lot this season from veteran players such as Kyle Juszczyk and Jordan Matthews on how to take care of your body.
Aiyuk was asked what his top priority this offseason is, so he comes back a better player in 2021:
“Just building my body. That’s the main thing. Last year, I had to go through some things during the offseason that didn’t allow me to prepare and have my body ready for the long NFL season. I just felt like I was playing catch up and things like that. Being able to go into this offseason and attack this offseason the right way, so when the 2021 season starts, we’re ready to go.”
Aiyuk added that his son's birth, which happened in September, would be added motivation for him this offseason.
Aiyuk received plenty of praise this year, and it came from unlikely sources. In early December, Dez Bryant took to Instagram to compare Aiyuk to a young Julio Jones. The 49ers rookie wideout also starred in this commercial. Aiyuk deserved every bit of praise he received this year.
Per Next Gen Stats, Aiyuk’s average separation was 2.8 yards, which is higher than Julio Jones, Adam Thielen, Justin Jefferson, DK Metcalf, and A.J. Brown, to name a handful. Aiyuk was responsible for 24.98% of the 49ers' air yards this season. So he’s gaining separation and doing it while being targeted down the field.
That’s ignoring the context of who is throwing Aiyuk the ball and how defenses began to play him as the season went along. Plus, the plays Aiyuk made when the ball was in his hands. From his touchdown on a reverse against the Giants to “the leap” over an Eagles defender, Aiyuk’s season was full of highlights.
Aiyuk is self-aware. He knows what people are saying about him. Here’s what the Niners rookie had to say about maintaining a level head:
“I haven’t done anything yet. It’s easy to stay grounded when you’re still working towards things. The goal is to always be working towards things.”
If 2020 were any indication of the future, it wouldn’t be long before defenses are game-planning to take Aiyuk away. I asked if that’s something he could prepare for this offseason, knowing that he’s the No. 1 receiver in the 49ers' offense.
“I can control what I can control. Having my body ready to play and getting into the best shape of where I feel Brandon Aiyuk can play the best football.”