Brandon Aiyuk: Year 3 will be critical for 49ers wide receiver

Brandon Aiyuk #11 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Brandon Aiyuk #11 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images) /

Brandon Aiyuk flashed a lot during his rookie season before hitting a slump early in 2021, only to resurge in the second half. What happens in 2022?

There were plenty of reasons to be excited about San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk at the close of his 2020 rookie season.

Aiyuk, the No. 25 overall pick from that year’s NFL Draft, was a bright spot amid a flurry of devastating injuries the Niners suffered over the course of the season, even threatening Hall of Famer Jerry Rice’s franchise record for most receiving yards by a rookie, and Aiyuk ultimately finished with 748 over 12 games played.

This led to some thinking Aiyuk could potentially emerge as San Francisco’s No. 1 wide receiver on the roster, potentially usurping fellow wideout Deebo Samuel as the top option at the position.

2021 got off to a bad start for Aiyuk, though, as he was hampered by a hamstring injury in training camp and subsequently found himself in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse, netting no more than four catches and 40 yards in any particular game between Weeks 1 and 6.

For whatever the reasons, including a “pep talk” with Shanahan, Aiyuk turned things around and eventually put together a fine 2021 campaign.

Aiyuk’s final regular-season stat line? A cool 56 receptions for 826 yards and five touchdowns over a full 17-game campaign.

While Samuel emerged as the 49ers’ key offensive star in 2021, Aiyuk might be just as important heading into 2022.

Brandon Aiyuk managed to avoid ‘sophomore slump’

Second-year Niners players have been prone to suffering regressive years following their rookie campaigns, and many wondered if Aiyuk was trending in the same direction as a former San Francisco top-drafted wideout, now-New York Giants wide receiver Dante Pettis, who flashed in 2018 before turning into an afterthought a year later.

It’s not just a 49ers problem, of course, as many a second-year pro can experience the “sophomore slump” after losing the sense of urgency many rookies carry in year one.

Pettis never rebounded. Aiyuk, fortunately, did.

Related Story: Brandon Aiyuk quietly put together an impressive 2021 campaign

Aiyuk managed three games in which he recorded 90-plus yards, and he came close to doing so with two more in which he had over 80 receiving yards. Particularly against man coverage, Aiyuk was a force and a reliable target for quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and, at times, Trey Lance.

Had Aiyuk not emerged from Shanahan’s doghouse and instead followed the Pettis-type route, it would have resulted in another likely gaffe of a top-end draft pick.

Not what the Niners needed.

Why 2022 campaign will be critical for Brandon Aiyuk, 49ers

Heading into 2022, San Francisco hopes to have its top three wide receivers set: Samuel, Aiyuk and third-year pro Jauan Jennings.

Mixing in tight end George Kittle, the 49ers’ array of pass-catchers should be more than adequate for Lance, who’ll take over starting duties for Garoppolo this upcoming season.

But Samuel’s emergence as a first-team All-Pro and household name ultimately mean he’ll draw the most attention from opposing teams this season, likely drawing the best defensive backs in coverage.

In some sense, this is great news for Aiyuk, who’ll likely find himself matched up against teams’ No. 2 cornerbacks over the course of 2022.

At the same time, though, Aiyuk will have to solidify himself as another reliable option yet again, needing to improve upon his route-running finesse and separation skills to ensure the numbers climb up from what was seen over the course of the last two seasons.

It’s possible Aiyuk breaks out in a big way, now that he’s cleared the hurdle of being a possible second-year blunder. With a strong finish to last season under his belt, the door is open for a breakout campaign this upcoming season.

All Aiyuk needs to do is seize the opportunity, and the Niners will be hoping for precisely that.

Next. 49ers' 15 best first-round NFL Draft picks of all time. dark