Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Why the 49ers need to quickly figure out their Brandon Aiyuk situation

Rohan Chakravarthi
Oct 13, 2021 at 5:30 PM--

What the heck have the 49ers done with Brandon Aiyuk?

That has been the primary question for this 2-3 San Francisco team since Week 1, when the promising receiver, who had an impressive rookie season, was out-snapped by free-agent addition Trent Sherfield 27-26.

Drafted 25th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft, Aiyuk burst into the spotlight last season, especially late in the year, catching 60 passes for 748 yards overall.

In fact, in a six-game stretch from Weeks 7-15 (not including the two games he was on the COVID-19 list), the rookie averaged 94.7 receiving yards, catching 7.5 passes on 11.5 targets per game.

The most important part: Aiyuk played on no lower than 76% of the offensive snaps during those weeks, which is a feat he's accomplished just once this year.

So, what has been the problem?

Well, the receiver nursed a hamstring injury towards the end of the preseason, limiting his play at the beginning of the year, which is why it was understandable that Trent Sherfield played more snaps than him in Week 1. I even stated back then that the issue was not that Aiyuk was in the doghouse, but rather recovering from injury, making it smart to ease him back into play.

But, as the season has progressed, Aiyuk's productivity is still lacking, despite his snap count rising. After playing on 47% of the snaps in Week 1, he's played in 54%, 86%, 67%, and 71% of the offensive snaps over the last four weeks.

Surely an increase in playing time would lead to an overall increase in production, right? Well, no.

Aiyuk has only eight receptions and 90 yards through five games, on only 15 total targets. That's less than Deebo Samuel (52 targets), George Kittle (28 targets), Kyle Juszczyk (16 targets), and Mohammed Sanu (16 targets).

On top of that, both Juszczyk and Sanu have played less than Aiyuk this season, as the former has been in on 63% of offensive snaps, while the latter has been in on 45%.

So, the problem isn't lack of playing time, but rather the lack of looks while on the field.

John Lynch went onto KNBR earlier this week and shared some rather controversial thoughts about his second-year wide receiver.

"A very talented young man, and he's a hard worker as well. I think we've gone to great lengths to kind of explain what the predicament is right now. But the bottom line is, we each have to find a way -- I'm talking we as a team and Brandon as a player -- because for us to get where we want to get, we need his talent and abilities on the field."

The last part of the quote is what I don't understand. If they want his talent and abilities on the field, why not diversify his route tree like they did last season or find more ways for him to get open, such as motioning him around the formation or setting him up with some patented Shanahan screen plays?

The amount of variety in Aiyuk's game last year was phenomenal; he was on the field in numerous positions within formations, increasing his ability for separation on his routes and helping the 49ers in the passing game with sub-optimal quarterbacks at the helm.

One year later, Aiyuk's route tree has been minimized and with that has come a drop in separation against defenders, per NFL's Next Gen Stats.

Still, Aiyuk doesn't only excel when he gets separation, but he can make a multitude of contested catches, increasing his value on the field. Just look at these two beautiful catches (and great ball placement from Trey Lance).

Now, quarterback play can certainly be attributed as part of the problem, given Garoppolo's lack of willingness to throw the ball 15+ yards down the field (Aiyuk's specialty) and Lance's lack of consistency in his limited reps.

And some of the blame likely goes towards the receiver as well, as his injury cost him significant reps in camp to get accustomed to both quarterbacks, especially after the lack of an offseason in 2020.

But, does that warrant John Lynch's comments about Aiyuk not making the strides that the 49ers expected?

"Having said that, I think it's important you earn your opportunities, and you do that during the week. It's not that Brandon is not working hard. It's, for whatever reason, he hasn't made the strides that we expect him to. We probably hold him to a higher standard because he's got so much in his body. It's important for a team to see people earn those opportunities," Lynch said.

After last week's game against the Cardinals alone, I think the world got a small taste of what Aiyuk really is capable of: a reliable option that can make a variety of difficult catches and also work after the catch.

It wasn't all questionable from Lynch, as the general manager did admit that communication is still in the works, which is understandable given the quarterback situation and Aiyuk's offseason injury.

"I think there's been really good communication here, of late, in an effort to get that out of him. And he wants it. It's not as if he's a guy that doesn't work hard. I think it's just everybody getting on the same page."

Despite the earlier comments, Lynch does still believe that Aiyuk will be an essential piece to this 49er offense, making him yet another polarizing topic on a team that currently has Nate Sudfeld as their only healthy quarterback.

"So, I think he's got to earn those opportunities, but yes, absolutely, I feel like it's really important for him to become a part of what we're doing moving forward because he's got a lot in his body. And he's got the makings of not just a starting football player in this league, but a very good one at that position, which is a very critical position," Lynch contended.

"I think to be able to compliment Deebo, particularly, with George out for right now, we need that explosiveness in our offense, and that starts this week. It starts every day. It's important that he finds a way to figure that out, and that's on us as well. So we need to do better there."

My solution? Start setting up more screen opportunities for Aiyuk, especially against a strong Colts front seven that will try and take the pressure off of their questionable secondary.

If it's not screens, then start sending him in motion more to create space to let him work both before and after the catch.

Whatever the solution is, there needs to be one sooner than later because San Francisco cannot go into their second stretch of divisional games with a poor record if they want any shot at a playoff opportunity.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.
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