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What are the expectations for Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk this year?

Kyle Shanahan may have issued a bit of a challenge this week

Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Sometimes the most interesting answers can come from the most innocuous questions. During his Tuesday press conference, Kyle Shanahan was asked a seemingly benign question about the state of the wide receiver room that I believe he turned into an opportunity to send a message.

“I think they’ve been getting in real good shape,” Shanahan said, “I’ve been looking forward to Deebo and Aiyuk taking a step forward, and all these guys that we brought here.”

On its own, that would hardly be enough to go on. When considered in context with some of the other things Kyle Shanahan has said about both of those players, however, it’s fair to wonder if he’s trying to light a fire under his starting receivers.

Consider this quote from January 4th talking about Deebo’s injury history affecting the team:

“I think that reality hit him the last month and how big a deal that is. That’s where I hope that’s a good thing for him. I mean, to feel that pain, to feel like what it does because that’s the reality of this league. You deal with a lot of players and a lot of situations and it really comes down to that. I’ve talked to players over my career and they’re like, ‘Coach, why are you so upset about this or that? It will be all right.’ I’ll be like, ‘No, I get it, but you don’t understand.’ So much goes into a game and so much goes into a season and it’s just here or there...Every decision I make, I try to look at it as, is that going to be the decision why I tell my daughter she’s moving in January? Is that why they’re going to a new school? Players, is that why you aren’t going to have the money when it’s said and done because just a couple of decisions you made is why you’re going to be out of the league at 27 instead of 32. And that’ll be the difference in you having to work a lot sooner or your kids having not the life that you had and all that stuff matters. Guys are young and you’re a product of your environment, but when you go through some of these experiences, that is reality. I think some of that stuff hit Deebo a little bit and that’s why I think it’s going to be a good thing that he went through it. It’ll make him more mature in how he responds to it and I think it will help his career and his life out.”

As much as we love Deebo, these comments don’t paint the rosiest picture. Especially going into year three of a four year contract. This could be a make-or-break year when it comes to a second contract with the 49ers.

(BTW, Levin Black and I dove into this and more in today’s Niners Nation Gold Standard Podcast. Make sure you check it out here or wherever you get your podcasts.)

Brandon Aiyuk is only going into year two of his contract, but that didn’t spare him from criticism last season, either. Here was what Kyle said after Aiyuk’s best game, a 10 catch, 119 yard performance against Washington:

“I still think he can play a lot better, and I think he could have last night, too. I think he took a small step back last night, and I’m hoping he’ll take two forward next week.”

Think about that. Aiyuk had the best game he’s ever had as a pro, and Kyle said he actually got worse. He was 267 yards away from breaking Jerry Rice’s 49ers rookie record for receiving yards at the time, too, so it’s not like he was struggling up to that point.

Despite game-breaking ability and good production on the field, both receivers felt the sting of criticism from their head coach last season. Kyle let both of them know this week that everything they’ve done so far won’t be enough to meet his lofty expectations in 2021.