Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Shanahan: Injury issues and Trent Sherfield’s emergence led to lack of time for 49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk vs Lions

Sep 12, 2021 at 2:14 PM--

Brandon Aiyuk's lack of playing time at wide receiver was one of the biggest surprises for the 49ers in their 41-33 Week 1 win over the Detroit Lions, and it may or may not continue to be an issue to keep an eye on in the weeks to come.

Aiyuk was impressive as a rookie last season (60 receptions for 748 yards and five touchdowns) after being selected in Round 1 of the 2020 NFL Draft out of Arizona State and was thought by many to be a candidate to take an even bigger step this season. But his playing time in the 49ers' season opener was limited as he had zero targets on offense while returning one punt for seven yards.

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan spoke after the game about Aiyuk's lack of participation, saying that a recent hamstring injury was part of the issue but that the emergence of Trent Sherfield throughout the preseason was also a factor.

"I know he's the starting punt returner," Shanahan said of Aiyuk. "I know we started Trent (at wide receiver), which they had been rotating a lot throughout the preseason. But Aiyuk's only been back for a week after he tweaked his hamstring, which we wanted to be smart with that. Also Trent Sherfield's earned the right to be out there more."

Sherfield caught two passes for 23 yards and was on the receiving end of rookie quarterback Trey Lance's first NFL touchdown pass in the first quarter. Shanahan said he intended on getting each of his receivers more time than they did but that the 49ers wound up not having a large enough number of plays in the game to make that happen (the 49ers finished with 55 plays to the Lions' 84).

"Aiyuk hadn't gone the last ten days with his hamstring. Sherfield was pushing him as it was," Shanahan said. "I planned on getting them a lot in, rotating both of them and playing all five guys who were up today. I think we only had one third down in the first half. I felt like it was more of the opposite in the second half. So I don't know how many plays we ended up having -- I don't know the numbers there -- but I'm sure he had less than expected."

Adding to the intrigue on this issue is a tweet made by 49ers beat reporter Matt Maiocco during the game that suggested Aiyuk's overall performance slipped as the preseason proceeded.

"After a hot start to training camp, Brandon Aiyuk tailed off dramatically. He is still learning how to be a pro," wrote Maiocco. "Kyle Shanahan, clearly, favors some of the other WRs right now. Message sent."

Aiyuk's status will be a storyline to watch in the weeks ahead as his health improves. He's certainly one of the most potent weapons the 49ers have on offense, but perhaps he has other hurdles to clear in addition to his health before being able to show everything he's capable of this season.

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