49ers lack of use with Brandon Aiyuk is disturbing, baffling

Brandon Aiyuk #11 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Brandon Aiyuk #11 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images) /

The 49ers have improperly deployed second-year wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, and the reasons why surely appear troubling and problematic.

The San Francisco 49ers better hope they’re not fostering another situation as they did with former wide receiver Dante Pettis.

This time, the receiver in question is second-year pro Brandon Aiyuk, a high-profile pass-catching target head coach Kyle Shanahan ranked right up there alongside the Dallas Cowboys‘ CeeDee Lamb, only Lamb was selected by Dallas at No. 17 overall in the 2020 NFL Draft.

The Niners traded up to grab Aiyuk at No. 25 overall.

In year one, Aiyuk was a star during an otherwise frustrating season, even threatening Hall of Famer Jerry Rice’s franchise rookie record for most receiving yards set back in 1985 with 927, Aiyuk doing so over just 12 games played.

This year, however, Aiyuk has been more of an afterthought, towards the bottom of the team’s leading receivers:

49ers 2021 Receiving Leaders Table (Weeks 1-5)
19Deebo Samuel25wr553154817.73796.2109.659.6%10.51
85George Kittle28te441922711.90394.856.867.9%8.11
44Kyle Juszczyk30fb55141359.61182.827.087.5%8.40
18Mohamed Sanu325010979.70162.019.462.5%6.10
11Brandon Aiyuk23wr5489011.31261.618.053.3%6.00
82Ross Dwelley26te5234615.31210.69.2100.0%15.30
81Trent Sherfield255033210.71180.66.437.5%4.00
15Jauan Jennings244033110.31140.87.8100.0%10.30

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 10/13/2021.

There was a reasonable argument Aiyuk would take over for Deebo Samuel as San Francisco’s No. 1 wide receiver this season. For good measure, too, considering Samuel’s injury history and Aiyuk’s flash playmaking ability.

Instead, Aiyuk saw zero targets in Week 1, just two in Week 2 and has only modestly been involved in games since.

Producing results like these, pointed out by Pro Football Focus’ Jeff Deeney:

Less than half the percentage of targets. That’s disturbing. And right now, Aiyuk isn’t being utilized as a recent first-round pick. Instead, head coach Kyle Shanahan is deploying Aiyuk as a tertiary wideout, someone buried at the back end of the depth chart.

“It’s not as if Brandon’s not working hard, it’s that for whatever reason, Brandon has not made the strides we expect him to.” – John Lynch on Brandon Aiyuk


49ers apparently waiting on Brandon Aiyuk to take a next step

Earlier in the year, Shanahan told reporters Aiyuk’s lack of use wasn’t because of anything in particular, aside from a minor injury the second-year pro was dealing with in training camp and the preseason.

Yet general manager John Lynch’s comments to KNBR 680 this week have to be seen as troubling:

"It’s not as if Brandon’s not working hard, it’s that for whatever reason, Brandon has not made the strides we expect him to. We probably hold him to a higher standard because he’s got so much in his body, and it’s important for a team to see people earn those opportunities.I think there’s been really good communication of late to try and get that out of him. It’s not as if he’s a guy who doesn’t work hard, I think it’s just everybody getting on the same page. I think he’s got to earn those opportunities, but I feel like it’s really important for him to become a part of what we’re doing moving forward."

What strides?

Those kinds of comments aren’t unlike what Pettis went through back in 2019 after a promising finish to his 2018 rookie year after being selected by the 49ers in Round 2, only to be called out by Shanahan a year later and eventually off the roster entirely in 2020.

Are Kyle Shanahan, 49ers mismanaging Brandon Aiyuk?

It’s a fair question. And there’s no doubting Shanahan is hard on his receivers, perhaps more than any other position.

Granted, there could be something going on behind closed doors no one is aware of in the public light. Aiyuk might be having his own struggles with the coaching staff, not showcasing the urgency or seriousness needed, which were apparent elements in Pettis’ own demise.

Read More: 3 things Kyle Shanahan must fix now after loss to Cardinals

At some point, though, Shanahan has to trust his best players and play them. In the Week 5 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, Aiyuk saw only one more target than the recently promoted-off-the-practice squad wide receiver, Travis Benjamin.

Again, why?

Perhaps Sports Illustrated’s Jose Sanchez offers up a proper evaluation:

"Even Travis Benjamin was involved out of nowhere against the Cardinals after being elevated from the practice squad the day before. This is ludicrous. Shanahan is deliberately limiting his offense to prove a point. It is absolutely insane to see. Whatever it is that he isn’t seeing from Aiyuk cannot be enough justification to purposely limit the offense. Unless Aiyuk is just being disrespectful or unprofessional in practice that is almost toxic, then there is no reason to cap his abilities."

If Shanahan is going to turn the Niners offense around, Aiyuk will have to be a major reason why. And if San Francisco wants to avoid another Pettis-like debacle, further staining an already questionable track record of early draft picks, Aiyuk has to be part of the game plan exponentially over what he’s seen thus far through five weeks.

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