While the 49ers offense may still funnel through Deebo Samuel, look for third-year wideout Brandon Aiyuk to finally hit his stride with Trey Lance under center.
For whatever the reasons, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk got off to a slow start at the beginning of the 2021 season after impressing his rookie year the season before.
Maybe it was the proverbial “sophomore slump” mixed in with the context of having to play a tertiary pass-catching target behind Pro Bowl tight end George Kittle and All-Pro wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who were both relatively healthy for the entirety of 2021 but weren’t the season prior.
Maybe Aiyuk truly was in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse early in the year, perhaps not wholly grasping what his expected role would be in Shanahan’s offense.
Perhaps Aiyuk never truly jelled with quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo.
At any rate, Aiyuk managed to finish strong enough, ending the 2021 regular season with 56 catches for 826 yards and five touchdowns, including a six-catch and 107-yard effort in the Niners’ playoff spot-clinching win over the Los Angeles Rams in Week 18.
Now, there are reasons to suspect Aiyuk finally lives up to his first-round reputation entering 2022.
49ers can have Trey Lance unlock Brandon Aiyuk as a top threat
Shanahan frequently used Aiyuk as a decoy for much of last season, which allowed Samuel to enjoy the kind of outstanding production he had.
For instance, many of the go routes designed to pull at least one defensive back away from the intermediate areas of the field led to additional chances for players like Samuel and Kittle underneath.
With Garoppolo’s limited arm strength, Aiyuk still wasn’t getting a lot of targets even if he was beating his man over the top. But those routes were nevertheless necessary, as The Krueg Show’s Larry Krueger explained to Niner Noise earlier this week.
Garoppolo’s game is vastly different than that of Aiyuk’s new quarterback, Trey Lance, who’ll assume starting duties in 2022.
Lance’s second start of his career (Week 17 against the Houston Texans) was one of Aiyuk’s better games, one in which he posted four catches on six targets for 94 yards and averaged 23.5 yards per reception. Just by looking at Lance’s Next Gen Stats passing chart from that game, it tells us something that jives with Aiyuk’s skill set:
Lance is not only capable of tossing the ball deep, but he also can throw outside the numbers.
In contrast, nearly every single one of Garoppolo’s passing charts is almost always limited to pass attempts between the numbers and no further than 10 to 15 yards from the line of scrimmage.
Niners Nation’s Kyle Posey explained why this matters:
"Aiyuk is a receiver that thrives by winning on isolated routes outside of the numbers. That wasn’t Garoppolo’s game. I brought up the fade against the Rams game the other day and how it was such an anomaly. Most of his production in that Week 18 game seems like it’d be right up Lance’s wheelhouse: fades, posts, and slants."
Simply put, Lance can take much better advantage of Aiyuk’s abilities than Garoppolo ever could.
Brandon Aiyuk won’t be 49ers’ WR1, but he’s already closing the gap
Samuel is still the alpha despite his apparent frustrations with San Francisco over his contract-extension talks. Barring something crazy, that won’t change in 2022.
However, should Samuel opt to sit out offseason workouts in the hope of landing a new deal, Aiyuk suddenly becomes the de facto No. 1 option on the depth chart heading into minicamps and organized team activities.
Lance and Aiyuk are already working out together in Southern California, while Samuel is working out on his own. Not like this matters much, but it is noteworthy. If nothing else, it shows the two want to develop that chemistry into something meaningful this upcoming season.
Aiyuk might never catch Samuel as long as the two are rostered together.
But if Lance is able to take advantage of the third-year pro’s prowess in a bigger way this upcoming season, at least the 49ers would have their prolific one-two punch at the position.