The San Francisco 49ers’ decision to trade up to select Brandon Aiyuk in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft caught some by surprise but, playing in the Kyle Shanahan system, he has the traits to explode onto the scene in his rookie year. Having selected Javon Kinlaw with the 14th overall pick following a trade back with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the 49ers moved from 31 to 25 to take the Arizona State star.
With just one year of elite production to his name – Aiyuk racked up 1,192 yards and scored eight touchdowns in the 2019 season for the Sun Devils – there will naturally be those who doubt whether the Niners were right to trade up for a receiver coming off core muscle surgery.
Though Aiyuk, who only played two seasons at Arizona State after transferring from junior college, is still relatively raw in terms of his experience against a high standard of competition, he possesses the athletic ability to excel in Shanahan’s scheme.
Aiyuk’s physical attributes are reflected in his Relative Athletic Score, which is a composite metric on a 0 to 10 scale based on the average of all the percentile for each of the metrics a player completes either at the Combine or his pro day.
He did not take part in every drill at the Combine, but Aiyuk posted an elite RAS of 8.46, a score that was in large part down to his efforts in exercises that measure explosiveness. Aiyuk received a RAS of 9.58 for his vertical jump and 9.3 for his broad jump.
Aiyuk’s athleticism turns him into a big-play machine
It is that explosive athleticism that pops off the screen when watching Aiyuk’s collegiate tape, his proclivity for bursting out of his breaks, turning him into a big-play machine.
Perhaps the best example of Aiyuk’s ability to erupt out of his breaks came on his first touchdown of a two-score game against Washington State. He fought off the contact from the intermediate level defender before gaining separation from the deep man by selling a jab step to the left and breaking back to the opposite corner.
Aiyuk produced a similar play in the Sun Devils’ win over Michigan State, his fake of an inside move almost sending the opposing cornerback to the turf. He would have had a walk-in touchdown were it not for a dreadfully underthrown ball.
The instant acceleration Aiyuk displayed on both of those plays was instrumental in a senior season that regularly saw him turn slant passes into long touchdowns.
Aiyuk’s 40-yard dash time of 4.5 seconds did not reflect the speed he showcased in college, but his core muscle injury may have impacted that number.
It was a combination of Aiyuk’s pace and elusiveness in the open field that established him as arguably the premier yards-after-catch receiver in the draft. The same agility that is obvious when he makes defenders miss is a key factor in what is an extremely underrated part of Aiyuk’s game.
One criticism against Aiyuk is that he is raw as a route-runner and did not run a complex tree at Arizona State, who tasked him primarily with screens, slants, and go routes. While Aiyuk may not have run an overly complicated tree in college, he has displayed intricacies as a route-runner that deserves recognition.
Aiyuk will mix up his releases against man coverage and did he so on this third-down conversion against Oregon State. He utilized the stutter and the jab step and showed his physicality to get free of the cornerback and haul in a deep pass for a significant gain.
The misdirection he can create with his releases was pivotal to this touchdown against USC, Aiyuk selling the corner inside and outside before breaking free over the middle of the endzone.
Aiyuk excels at getting defenders to bite on fakes, with his success in doing so the result of his commitment to selling them and the explosiveness and agility that were defined as his calling cards during the pre-draft process.
That intriguing mix helped Aiyuk gain separation from a linebacker against Colorado as he sold a head fake to the outside, turning his shoulders and knees in the same direction to bait the defender, before effortlessly bursting back to the inside.
Aiyuk may lack the experience of running a pro route tree, but labeling him as an unrefined route-runner does a disservice to a player who has landed in the perfect place to maximize his talents.
Aiyuk is an ideal fit in Kyle Shanahan’s offense
Shanahan’s offense is built around receivers who can rack up yardage after the catch, with last year’s second-round pick Deebo Samuel and superstar tight end George Kittle each excelling in that regard.
According to the NFL’s NextGen Stats, Samuel was second among all receivers in YAC per reception with 8.5 in 2019. Kittle was fifth on the list with 7.5.
In his final season with the Sun Devils, Aiyuk averaged a whopping 10.9 yards after the catch.
What makes the 49ers offense so attractive?
The 49ers’ passing game features heavy doses of slants, screens, reverses, and pop passes. It is an attack tailored to Aiyuk’s strengths and one in which he can produce immediately as a rookie.
What is tantalizing to think about is the ceiling. With the flashes of route-running nuance he demonstrated in college and his incredible 81-inch wingspan, Aiyuk has the potential to develop into a legitimate number one receiver for the 49ers.
Being selected after a trade up means there will be significant scrutiny on Aiyuk right off the bat. However, the marriage of his physical traits and San Francisco’s scheme is one set up to succeed instantly. Shanahan and general manager John Lynch recognized this and, should the 2020 season go ahead as planned, the arguments against the trade are likely to be blown up by an offense that now has even more firepower.