While there are several key holdovers, a number of new faces have emerged, leading a 49ers team that could be the most dangerous group of the Kyle Shanahan era.
Among the new faces is breakout wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, who was named a second-team All-Pro after a season where he caught 75 passes for 1,342 yards and seven touchdowns.
Now, Aiyuk’s ascendance as a receiver was predictable after the Arizona State product led the team with 78 catches for 1,015 yards and eight touchdowns in 2022, taking over as the top option with Deebo Samuel sidelined for four games.
However, not only has Aiyuk elevated his game from last season, but the All-Pro receiver has done so at an elite level, working as the second-most efficient receiver in the NFL this season behind Tyreek Hill.
How was Aiyuk as efficient as he was in 2023? It all starts with his playmaking potential, as he averaged 17.9 yards per catch, ranking second to just George Pickens, while generating 28 explosive plays (20+ yard receptions), good for third in the NFL behind Hill and CeeDee Lamb, who each had 29.
More importantly, Aiyuk managed to be seventh in the NFL in receiving, despite ranking 30th in targets and being surrounded by Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and Christian McCaffrey in the NFL’s second-most-balanced offense.
It all came to an ultimatum on Sunday night, as the 49ers found themselves in a dire situation down 24-7 at halftime and needing a spark on both sides of the ball.
After a field goal from the offense and a forced turnover on downs by the defense, the 49ers were able to get things clicking after Brock Purdy unleashed an improbable 51-yard bomb that bounced off the head of cornerback Kindle Vildor and ended up in the hands of Brandon Aiyuk.
The play left several of his teammates in shock, while head coach Kyle Shanahan couldn’t help but effusively praise his top receiver.
“That was amazing,” Shanahan said about Aiyuk’s catch. “Even the second or third play of the game when we threw him the slant and go, the corner was bailing and usually when it happens, we like to say he is just chasing a ghost. For him to dig out like that and make sure it wasn’t a pick was huge. The next one was very similar, but he dug out and got a little bit closer to it and to be able to make that play was so big. I didn’t think he was going to ever recover. He seemed like he was yelling at me the whole time to challenge it because he just knew that he scored, but I was told he didn’t. So that’s why I didn’t.”
Aiyuk’s playmaking ability isn’t a new revelation; he’s carried it throughout the season, including in San Francisco’s playoff game against the Green Bay Packers where he converted a pair of crucial third downs.
“It was awesome. It was as big of a play [as we could’ve asked for],” Shanahan said after the game. “BA made two huge plays on third down last week with two low throws that probably would not have been able to win without those two plays.”
“When we were down in this game and it seemed like they were running away with it early Brock made an off-schedule throw and BA almost came down with another low catch and missed it. That was a big one. For him to come back and completely redeem himself and even more with one of the best catches I’ve ever seen in the biggest moments was we will all be hugely grateful for our whole lives.”
Why did Purdy ultimately throw the deep ball to Aiyuk that has now gone viral?
“I mean, they had a safety sitting in the middle of the field,” Shanahan said about the major play. “[QB] Brock [Purdy] did an awesome job recognizing it. We had Deebo on a crossing route. That safety cut it. Brock made the right read and just launched it. The corner did an awesome job staying on top.”
“The safety cuts, that means there’s no one in the middle, but the corner was aware of it, so he stayed on top. I was worried for it to be a pick when it’s like that. Brock makes the right read, but he launches it. BA did a hell after job going up for it, so it wasn’t going to be a pick. Then he came down with the catch, which was huge. I was never able to see if he was down or not. They said he was. Great we punched it in later.”
With his tremendous catch, Aiyuk brought life to an offense that was seeking an explosive in the second half, and the 49ers never looked back from there.
“Anytime you get a big, explosive one like that, it makes it a lot easier. We felt we could go on drives, we just had to get it going,” Shanahan said. “Once BA made that play, kind of unlocked it with such an explosive. Kind of unlocked the whole team. Right after getting that turnover I believe Gipson forced, that was huge. Right after that, you could feel the whole momentum with our players, the stadium, on the sideline kind of flip. Felt it was on after that.”
While quarterback Brock Purdy did throw a contested pass deep downfield, his comfortability with letting the top receiver make a play ultimately led to a major explosive and the key for turning this slump around offensively.
“When I saw him catch that, I was like, ‘that’s insane,’” Purdy said. “At the end of the day, like I said, I was just trying to give him an opp, man. Huge play, one-on-one, we need a play, explosive. Here is one of our best receivers to go down and make a clutch play for us.”
Now, Purdy may have been confident in his top weapon, but Brandon Aiyuk acknowledged his surprised feeling after making the catch and didn’t know how he pulled the feat off post-game.
“I was surprised. I felt the look before, pre-snap, that I had a chance to get the ball, but they were just on top. I don’t even know,” Aiyuk said.
Now, the talented wideout, who could very well receive a hefty contract extension this offseason, has one more challenge ahead of him: beating the Kansas City Chiefs in the Super Bowl, who slightly outpaced the 49ers in 2019 when Aiyuk was still in college.