Column: Brandon Aiyuk is the 49ers’ Best Wide Receiver This Season
From the moment I first saw San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk play, I knew he could be special.
I’m not talking about when he was drafted by the 49ers with the 25th overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft, no. I’m talking about his time at my alma mater, Arizona State University. Attending the school from 2018 to 2021, football games were up there as one of the premier events on any given Saturday. That was partially thanks to the student tickets being free, but you catch my drift.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Sun Devils had two standout offensive weapons in back-to-back seasons: WR N’Keal Harry (now a member of colleague Joe Jarosz’s beloved Chicago Bears), and Brandon Aiyuk. “BA” went off in his final collegiate season in 2019, finishing with 65 receptions for 1192 receiving yards and eight touchdowns in all 12 games played that season.
His most impressive game was one I attended with my father in November 2019, upsetting the No. 6-ranked Oregon Ducks, 31-28, on national television. Aiyuk and now Atlanta Falcons WR Frank Darby combined for 11 receptions, 286 yards and three touchdowns against quarterback Justin Herbert and the Ducks that night. The former had the third-and-final TD to give ASU the win, streaking down the left sideline before QB Jayden Daniels launched an 81-yard bomb to the receiver, racing to the endzone for a 10-point lead with under four minutes left in the game.
It’s a moment that my father & myself will hold dearly for the rest of our lives, still giving me goosebumps to this day.
Fast forward a few years, BA is starting to make it happen on a global stage.
Through the first 10 weeks of the season, Brandon Aiyuk leads the pass-catching group in all categories as QB Jimmy Garoppolo’s No.1 target. He has 44 catches for 567 yards and four TDs. While the numbers might not be as jaw-dropping as others, BA has improved mightily in every facet of the game since his rookie season.
San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan has a specific mold for his players: They have to be able to do the big three: Run, block, catch. When San Francisco drafted the Rocklin native, he struggled with consistency in the run game, and in the offense overall, forcing him to be scratched from the lineup for the first portion of the 2020 season.
Aiyuk took the exclusions to heart the last two years, working with QB Trey Lance for much of the offseason down in Southern California before this season. The results have been noticeable for Shanahan and the 49ers, singing his praises since training camp.
“Just how he looked on every play. Just the routes he was running, how he was separating, how he was blocking, how good he seemed, guys go through ups and downs throughout years always, whether it’s physically or mentally, but I did think [Week 6 in] Atlanta was probably his best game of the year going up to that time and I think he’s passed that the last two games,” the head coach stated prior to Week 10 against the Chargers.
“That he has the capability to do everything. I think that’s why his draft status is where it is. He’s got the speed to run by someone. He’s got the cutting ability and the hips to separate. He’s got the length to catch balls when people are on him and he’s not scared to run after it, so he’s got the ability to do all of it.”
Week 10 was an example of the “ups-and-downs” Shanahan was eluting to.
Aiyuk had two bad mistakes Sunday night, the first occurring on an explosive play right before the end of the opening quarter. High-pointing a ball 19 yards down the field, BA got popped by safety Derwin James, jarring the football loose for a turnover in 49ers’ territory. The second occurred in the third quarter, running a nasty route at the goal line that left cornerback Asante Samuel Jr. in the dust. The play could not be completed though as Aiyuk dropped a slightly behind pass from Garoppolo.
A catchable ball for sure (and BA knows that), but take a look at the route he runs to free himself in the endzone.
Brandon Aiyuk *has to* catch this ball from Jimmy Garoppolo on third down in the red zone.
That being said, what a route from 11. He's turning into a technician at the receiver spot and legitimately their No. 1 threat in these "go-to" passing situations. pic.twitter.com/I91NF48m8H
— Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav) November 14, 2022
Aiyuk made up for it though, clutching up in the fourth quarter with a 24-yard catch and run that put the 49ers on the two-yard-line with a chance to take the lead. Running back Christian McCaffrey broke the plane on the very next play, putting the 49ers up, 19-16.
A very clunky game from the start, Brandon Aiyuk and the offense came around when they needed to, with the wideout citing all the praise to a team effort.
“We felt like the whole game we just didn’t capitalize or finish drives,” Aiyuk told the media postgame Sunday. “I dropped one down there that would have put us up a little earlier, instead of having to wait. Then we had a few drives with penalties. That has been the story a lot of times this season, but we were able to get a win this week. That’s the sign of a good team, not having to play perfect football to come out with a win.”
After a slow start statistically, Aiyuk has come into form the last month, having four straight games with more than 80 yards receiving and six targets. He finished Week 10 with six catches for 84 yards. BA also has three TDs in the past four games for San Francisco.
The biggest change has been Aiyuk’s demeanor though, becoming a leader on and off the field for the Red & Gold. His postgame comments after Week 7’s embarrassment to the Kansas City Chiefs were the most passionate out of the bunch, asking each player to look at themselves in the mirror during the interview.
The players heard it and responded in a big way, producing third-down conversions Sunday against the Chargers that have been hampering the offense for the first half of the season.
On Sunday night, the #49ers converted:
He completed passes to Jauan Jennings, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle on those plays for a total of 73 yards.
Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers' WRs were so good on third down.
— Akash Anavarathan (@akashanav) November 14, 2022
“It was huge. [WR Jauan Jennings] came in and made some huge plays at the end of the game. [TE] George [Kittle] made a big play too, a big play on third down. That is going to be the story of our season, can we convert on third down. I think we started off the season in the back end of the league in terms of third down, and I think we are 6th or 7th now. We are just trying to continue to build on that and hopefully be on the top of the league in third down because we know if we convert on third down our offense can keep going.”
That situational understanding is something Brandon Aiyuk lacked early on in his career, a component of the player that is now vital to his role in the offense. BA has had to learn a lot, fast, on a team with Super Bowl aspirations every season. It may have taken some time, but the Rocklin native has blossomed as the de facto wideout in passing situations, and flourished as a leader in the locker room, regardless of the captain’s patch.
A sight that makes all the speculation back in 2019 in Tempe, Arizona completely worth it, because BA, is Big-Time. And he’ll need to be for the 49ers if they want to win their sixth Super Bowl this season.