Pro Football Focus ranked the most productive rookie draft classes from this past season, and the San Francisco 49ers found themselves at No. 10:
Why they’re ranked here: Brandon Aiyuk (No. 25 overall) was the saving grace of San Francisco’s 2020 rookie class. He and interior defender Javon Kinlaw (No. 14 overall) were the only rookies on the roster with 300-plus snaps. Aiyuk was one of the five most valuable rookies of the entire 2020 NFL draft class and was among the 25 most valuable wide receivers in the NFL this season, per PFF WAR.
How their top pick fared: : Kinlaw came to the NFL with all the requisite physical tools but lacked pass-rush polish. Through Year 1, it’s clear he still has some work to do in that regard. Kinlaw finished with a 58.0 pass-rush grade for the season that ranked 86th of 111 qualifying interior defensive linemen. He offered very little in run support, as well, with a 46.9 grade in that facet (95th).
This is where mine and others have issues with PFF’s grading system. I’m not pretending that Kinlaw was this all-world player as a rookie. Too often, he played with poor pad level and was moved off his spots.
With that being said, Kinlaw was far from below average and was closer to above-average toward the end of the season. It’d be difficult to watch Kinlaw and come away with the thought that he was a better pass rusher as a rookie than a run defender, but here we are.
In Aiyuk’s case, the only thing holding him back were backup quarterbacks and missing four games. PFF ranking Aiyuk that high in their WAR stat tells you how valuable Aiyuk was. He finished the season with seven total touchdowns. Of his 60 receptions, 42 of them went for first downs. It felt like Aiyuk had a lot more than six rushing attempts this season. Probably because whenever Aiyuk touches the ball, you know there’s a chance for the big play.
Where does Aiyuk have to get better?
He’s far from perfect, and he’d be the first to tell you as much. Drops might be what first comes to mind, but Aiyuk dropped only four passes on 71 catchable targets. If he were fighting the ball or didn’t look coordinated catching it, I’d have concerns. Aiyuk had four “focus” drops. That’s not much of a worry.
I’d like to see Aiyuk evolve as a route runner. He’s well versed on slants and curls, so I don’t mean that. I’m more referring to recognizing how defenses guard him so he can find a window in zone coverage or perhaps know how to manipulate the man-match coverage on a particular play.
Sight-adjustments are big in the NFL, and it’s what makes guys like Davante Adams and Tyreek Hill the best of the best. Aiyuk will continue to get better simply by playing more. Aiyuk’s next step will be getting comfortable with what defenses are throwing at him.