Kicking off this year's 'Who Is?' series, Brandon Aiyuk might actually be the 49ers' best pure wide receiver.
Welcome to the opening of Niner Noise's "Who Is?" series where we break down each San Francisco 49ers player on the 90-man offseason roster and tackle the most pressing questions facing him as the regular season approaches.
Since this is always an alphabetical thing, it's not surprising wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk graces the beginning of this yearly series.
And he might grace the title of being the Niners' best pure wideout, too. With all due respect to All-Pro Deebo Samuel, who does a lot of things awfully well, Aiyuk is a superior route-runner and is far better than Samuel against man coverage.
If you spend just a little time looking at the All-22 film of both players, you'll probably come to the same conclusion.
A 1,000-yard receiver for the first time in his career last season, Aiyuk also led all San Francisco pass-catchers in that category.
Considering the 49ers also have elite-level players like Samuel, tight end George Kittle and running back Christian McCaffrey vying for touches, Aiyuk's feat is certainly notable. And he'd have the right to be frustrated at any criticisms, too.
The Niners already picked up Aiyuk's fifth-year option to continue playing with them into 2024, but there is some uncertainty on the horizon.
Does that spill over into 2023? Or will some of San Francisco's other question marks lead to Aiyuk going through something of a regression after setting career-highs the year before?
Why Brandon Aiyuk is even better for 49ers in 2023
In a brief summary, Aiyuk showed promise his rookie season before starting off somewhat slow his sophomore year but turning things on during the second half.
Over the course of 2022, fans got to witness Aiyuk in full form.
The former first-round pick out of ASU surely benefited from having Samuel come off an All-Pro season the year prior, and then the midseason pickup of McCaffrey aided in taking some of the pressure off Aiyuk, too.
About the only inconsistency was at quarterback. The 49ers cyled through Trey Lance, Jimmy Garoppolo and Brock Purdy over the entire year.
While there's still plenty of uncertainty under center, the one quarterback with whom Aiyuk never quite jelled with was Garoppolo, and he's now with the Las Vegas Raiders.
If Purdy returns from his offseason elbow injury and picks up with Aiyuk where he left off, signs will point to exceeding the receiver's 2022 numbers.
Why Brandon Aiyuk regresses, takes a step back with 49ers in 2023
2021 revealed that Aiyuk can be a streaky player. Sure, the 25-year-old receiver now has three years fully immersed in the system, and he's the perfect component opposite Samuel atop the wide receiver depth chart.
That said, the Niners have plenty of mouths to feed... er, hands to get the ball into when it comes to offensive weapons. Going back over that list of talent, anyone like Samuel, McCaffrey and Kittle can take touches away from Aiyuk.
Would it be enough to prevent Aiyuk from hitting yet another 1,000-yard season?
Perhaps, but when one tacks on the fact San Francisco doesn't yet know who will start under center this season, another X-factor could potentially get in the way of Aiyuk's upward trajectory.
What does the long-term future for Brandon Aiyuk look like?
Entering year for of his pro career, Aiyuk is still on his cheap rookie contract and will count for $3.987 million against the cap this season, according to Over the Cap. That number jumps, though, to over $14 million on his fully guaranteed fifth-year option in 2024.
The 49ers already spent big bucks extending Samuel during the 2022 offseason, and it's rare for teams to pay two wideouts a lucrative amount of cash at the same time. Granted, should the Niners fully commit to Purdy under center, the quarterbacking expenses will continue to be light for the foreseeable future.
However, it's going to be hard to pay both Samuel and Aiyuk for the long run.
This has led to some speculation that Aiyuk could be traded prior to that fifth-year option being played out, perhaps in a move where San Francisco looks to "sell high" and recoup some serious assets in exchange for an ascending receiver.
Or, potentially, Samuel ends up being the player moved if the 49ers prefer Aiyuk's overall ability in one role while valuing McCaffrey's multi-use features more, too.
Entering 2023, though, Aiyuk is simply going to be a vital cog in the Niners offense, and that's where he's at his best.