The San Francisco 49ers selected speedy, versatile receivers in the 2019 and 2020 NFL Drafts, and both look like the right choices. The Niners took Deebo Samuel in the second round of the 2019 Draft, and he has showcased why he will be a difference-maker for years to come.
San Francisco desperately needed a wideout after veteran Emmanuel Sanders departed in free agency following the 2019 campaign. The expectation was that general manager John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan would use one of their two first-round picks in the 2020 NFL Draft on a receiver.
After trading back one spot from No. 13 to No. 14, the 49ers went with defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, passing up on pass catchers CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy. San Francisco then traded up from the 31st to the 25th pick and took Arizona State standout Brandon Aiyuk.
The rookie receiver impressed during his rookie year, tallying 60 receptions for 748 yards and five touchdowns. Aiyuk is also a threat running the ball, putting up six carries for 77 yards and two scores. With Samuel missing nine games, Aiyuk got plenty of targets and was able to showcase why he has a bright future in the NFL.
Much like the rest of the world, Aiyuk’s year wasn’t typical compared to rookies from previous seasons. The pandemic forced NFL teams to limit offseason workouts in 2020 and eliminated the usual four preseason games.
Aiyuk missed the season-opening loss against the Arizona Cardinals with a hamstring injury, and it took him some time to find his footing. The 22-year-old eclipsed the 70-yard mark just once over his first five games, but he came rebounded from his slow start.
Aiyuk missed an additional two games while being on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but he was an absolute force when he was on the field. Over his final seven outings, Aiyuk averaged 82.8 receiving yards per game. That’s with starting QB Jimmy Garoppolo only playing a game-and-a-half over that stretch and Nick Mullens throwing him the ball.
Aiyuk was the sixth-and-final receiver taken in the first round. Here is how his numbers compare to the five players taken ahead of him.
Aiyuk: Yards per game: 62.3
Yards per reception: 12.5
YAC yards: 289
Henry Ruggs (Raiders): Yards per game: 34.8
Yards per reception: 17.4
YAC yards: 145
Lamb (Cowboys): Yards per game: 58.4
Yards per reception: 12.6
YAC yards: 311
Jalen Reagor (Eagles): Yards per game: 36.0
Yards per reception: 12.8
YAC yards: 191
Jeudy (Broncos): Yards per game: 53.5
Yards per reception: 16.5
YAC yards: 284
Jefferson (Vikings): Yards per game: 87.5
Yards per reception: 15.9
YAC yards: 453
Catch %: 70.4
It’s easy to see that Jefferson had the best season out of any rookie receiver, but it also has to be said that he is playing with the best quarterback of the bunch.
Aiyuk ranks in the top three in every category listed above except for yards per reception compared to his first-year brethren.
The Arizona State product will have to limit the drops, but that will come as he gains experience. Aiyuk had a few passes go off his hands in the Week 14 loss to the Washington Football Team and should have come up with a catch that led to an interception the week before against the Buffalo Bills.
Still, Aiyuk is quickly establishing himself as one of the best young receivers in the league. He finished just 179 yards behind the legendary Jerry Rice for the most receiving yards by a 49ers rookie. Aiyuk likely would have beaten the record had he not missed four games.
San Francisco has been linked to All-Pro receiver Julio Jones, who would give the Niners a three-headed monster alongside Aiyuk and Samuel.
What do you think Aiyuk’s ceiling is as a wide receiver? What are your expectations for Aiyuk in his second season?