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49ers’ Brandon Aiyuk quietly emerging as a top-10 WR and the numbers prove it

Aiyuk’s numbers have been more impressive than the surface level may indicate.

Arizona Cardinals v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers made light work of the Arizona Cardinals in Week 4, cruising to a 35-16 victory to become just one of two NFL teams to begin the season 4-0 alongside the Philadelphia Eagles.

The victory was an offensive masterclass by the home team, as the 49ers scored touchdowns on five of their six drives. Running back Christian McCaffrey had four total scores and quarterback Brock Purdy had the highest completion rate in franchise history at 95.2 percent with a 20/21, 283-yard performance against the Cardinals.

Talk about impressive.

However, there was another offensive stat line that went more under the radar, given the career performances of McCaffrey and Purdy: Brandon Aiyuk’s six-catch, 148-yard game, with the latter being a career-high for the wideout.

Catching passes for 42 and 34 yards, Aiyuk paced the 49ers in the air with his second 100-yard receiving game of the season, accounting for over 50 percent of the team’s passing yards.

How good has Aiyuk truly been to begin the 2023 season?

The numbers

1706 yards. 91 catches. 11 touchdowns. That’s what Aiyuk’s projections are for this season, and that involves the receiver missing out on one game.

Now, of course, it’s been just three games, but Aiyuk’s play has been on a different level to begin the year.

While his impact has been masked by a potential MVP candidate in Christian McCaffrey, the wide receiver continues to elevate his game and has quietly continued a breakout that began with his first 1,000-yard campaign during the 2022 season.

Through four games, Aiyuk has 17 catches for 320 yards, which ranks 11th in the NFL, and two touchdowns.

However, when comparing Aiyuk to the NFL on a per-game basis, Aiyuk ranks sixth in the NFL in receiving yards per game at 106.7, falling just behind Justin Jefferson(135.8), Puka Nacua (125.3), Tyreek Hill (117.5), Keenan Allen (108.5), and Nico Collins (107).

What’s even more impressive is the volume disparity between Aiyuk and his fellow counterparts. Aiyuk has only 20 targets on the season, while each of the top ten in receiving yards has at least 31 targets on the year, showcasing the efficiency that the 49er has distributed early in the season with his opportunities.

The efficiency is summarized by Aiyuk’s impressive 18.8 yards per catch, which ranks just second in the NFL to Houston’s Nico Collins’s 19.5 per catch, pointing out his ability as a deep threat.

Diving deeper into the numbers, amongst qualified receivers, Aiyuk ranks first in the NFL in yards per route run (4.57) and fifth in explosive plays (12), which account for over 70 percent of his receptions.

What do these numbers all mean?

Aiyuk hasn’t run nearly as many routes as his NFL counterparts, seeing just 70 routes run through three games. Which makes sense, given the amount that San Francisco runs the football, both due to their scheme and the nature of the games they’ve played.

However, in those opportunities, the numbers suggest that Aiyuk is making the most out of those opportunities, while also pointing to the conceited effort from the 49ers to get their top wideout the ball.

The Improvements

After yet another strong offseason, there were questions coming into the season about whether Aiyuk would see enough volume to continue the breakout that fans saw in 2022. Since San Francisco retained Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and a healthy Christian McCaffrey for a full season.

Through three games, Aiyuk isn’t seeing an overwhelming amount of volume; his 20 targets rank 50th in the NFL.

Despite that, the wideout ranks amongst the top 15 in numerous statistical categories, in part due to his efficiency and quarterback Brock Purdy’s ability to deliver accurate throws to all three levels of the field.

But, it’s not just about Aiyuk’s efficiency; the wideout has seen improvements in his game that have now led to an even bigger breakout in 2023.

The biggest area of Aiyuk’s development has been the ability to make big plays, summarized by his impressive back-shoulder grab for a deep gain this past weekend against the Arizona Cardinals.

In addition, Aiyuk made a nice adjustment on his first deep ball of the game, running to the open area where Purdy dictated the pass to make the catch, despite facing double coverage downfield.

After the game, Purdy pointed out that the choice to throw the deep ball was mainly to provide Aiyuk a downfield opportunity, which the wideout was able to adjust for the conversion.

“Yeah, I threw it, I saw him [Brandon Aiyuk] downfield, and I was like, all right, let’s just give him an opportunity ball here,” Purdy said about the deep connection. “And so, I threw it downfield, and he made a crazy catch, so I was hyped to get to connect.”

“I was trying to [lead Aiyuk to the right], but the safety, or I think it was the backside corner, came into the picture, but B.A. did a great job of adjusting and making a great play. So, all the credit to B.A. on that play.”

Last season, Aiyuk struggled to consistently come down with those contested or more difficult catches. But that storyline has changed early, as the wideout has already seen some tough targets come his way, hauling in a 1-on-1 over Patrick Peterson in Week 1 in addition to his deep catches this week.

Those improvements were noted by head coach Kyle Shanahan as well, who pointed out the increased confidence that Purdy has in his receiver on those deep opportunities, as well as Aiyuk’s longer arms that allow for his widened catch radius.

“I always look at Aiyuk like he’s one of the taller receivers, I don’t know if he is height-wise, but his arms are what make him that way,” Shanahan said after San Francisco’s 35-16 win over the Arizona Cardinals.

“He’s got a great radius, you can put it anywhere around him. Brock’s got a lot of confidence in him, and he took three shots to him down the field, and he came down with all three of them. B.A.’s just getting better and better, and he’s doing it with his quarterback too.”

That catch radius has been noticed by his teammates, as offensive tackle Colton McKivitz pointed to the Aiyuk’s ability to catch nearly every pass thrown his way.

“Yeah. It doesn’t matter where you throw it up to him,” McKivitz said following the game. “Coming back from last week and just exploding this week and having, I don’t know what he had. It was over 100 yards. It’s a lot of fun to have weapons all over the field. Guys are everywhere.”

Overall, Aiyuk won’t see as many contested catch opportunities as other receivers, given the number of weapons that San Francisco has, as well as the wideout’s innate ability to separate (he’s averaging 2.6 yards of separation per route run in 2023).

However, his ability to consistently produce on those plays has increased his overall output, as well as quarterback Brock Purdy’s confidence in the wideout, as Aiyuk now regularly gets those chances to make tough plays.

Going back to Aiyuk’s eight-catch, 129-yard, and two-touchdown Week 1 performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers, head coach Kyle Shanahan noted that the wideout’s biggest improvement season-to-season was his consistency.

“[The biggest area of improvement is that he’s] more consistent,” Shanahan said in September, via NBC Sports Bay Area’s Tristi Rodriguez. “I thought he came a long way last year in that, as the year went, I think that’s why he ended up leading our team in receiving [in 2022] and he’s carried that into the offseason. Didn’t know if he was going to get all those opportunities going into Week 1.

You never know how it’s going to play out, but he got eight opportunities, and he came down with all eight of them. That doesn’t always mean you get more. Sometimes that means you get more attention, and they take it away, which helps out other people. So, you never know which direction it’s going to go each week.”

That consistency hasn’t just come with the way he’s approached the passing game, but rather his overall outlook, regardless of whether he’s getting the ball or not.

“But the coolest thing about B.A. is how ready he came to play regardless,” Shanahan said after Week 1. “You see him on some of those run plays and stuff and from the beginning to the end. And usually, when he is like that in the run game, it carries over to the pass game. The pass game’s just a little more out of your control, but yesterday it all fell to him, and he was ready for the moment and had a big-time game.”

That consistency has carried into the initial portion of the regular season, as Aiyuk has yet to drop a pass, while being amongst the league leaders at his position.

Relationship with Purdy

Now, Aiyuk’s ascendance has come with a significant step forward on his end, but with some help from quarterback Brock Purdy, who has completed 72 percent of his passes overall, and 85 percent when targeting Aiyuk.

Coming into the season, some had reservations about whether the connection between Aiyuk and Purdy was sustainable, given the quarterback’s physical limitations and the receiver’s downfield ability.

Through four games, it’s clear that discourse doesn’t hold much weight, as Purdy has continued to showcase the aggressive tendencies that were present during his rookie season, while improving in several areas.

While Purdy does have some physical limitations, his ability to throw with good timing and anticipation regularly leads to on-target completions, and that has been the case at all three levels of the field this season.

Now, Purdy hasn’t necessarily aired it out at a significant rate; his two completions to Aiyuk on Sunday were his first of the season over 30+ air yards, but the fact of the matter is: San Francisco’s offense doesn’t need him to and neither does his top receiver.

Aiyuk has flourished in the intermediate range of the field, while the timing with Purdy has led to completions on a number of tight-window throws.

Despite missing a game, Aiyuk leads the 49ers in catches, yards, receiving touchdowns, and explosive plays, only further showcasing how his connection with Purdy has evolved.

Top 10?

Coming into the season, Aiyuk’s hype continued to brew, as the wideout enjoyed another strong training camp showing, continuing to build his relationship with Brock Purdy.

However, has Brandon Aiyuk warranted top-10 receiver status with his early season statistics?

The wideout hinted at what his answer would be, pointing to the film, but letting his play do the talking when asked the question postgame.

“I think y’all know what I want to say my answer is,” Aiyuk said after the team’s win over the Cardinals. “I put it on film every week. I might have an answer for you at the end of the season. We just continue to handle business and the play the game the way we know how. I’m just trying to come out here and play the best football I can every week, and we’ll let the people decide that one.”

While the argument of top receivers in the NFL is highly subjective, the numbers create a strong argument for Aiyuk through the first four games of the season. He will only look to continue building on a strong 2023 campaign ahead of what could be a significant payday for the wideout next offseason.