49ers Top Breakout Candidate Impressing at Training Camp

Brandon Aiyuk

Getty The 49ers' top breakout candidate is impressing at training camp.

Trey Lance is drawing most of the focus at the San Francisco 49ers training camp this year. That’ll happen when you’ve been handed the reins to take over at football’s most important position, but what about those expected to catch passes from Lance in 2022?

One receiver who has been widely tipped as a breakout candidate this season is already turning heads during camp. He caught the eye more than once during the first day of practice on Wednesday, July 27.

Most encouraging is how this young wideout already appears to have established a genuine rapport with his new starting quarterback. That’s good news for Lance, but even better news for Niners’ head coach Kyle Shanahan.

He needs viable alternatives to top playmaker Deebo Samuel, a player who is still not practicing while he waits on a new contract.

Samuel Understudy Beginning to Shine

Brandon Aiyuk is dealing with big expectations headed into his third season. He’s tipped by Michael Renner of Pro Football Focus to be the 49ers’ breakout candidate this season.

Renner believes Aiyuk showed enough last season to prove he can fill in for Samuel, if necessary: “Aiyuk was a separation machine last season despite only finishing with 816 yards. He hauled in over 50% of his contested opportunities and broke 18 tackles on 56 catches. If Samuel is out any length of time over his contract dispute, Aiyuk should have no problem whatsoever filling that role in the offense.”

The membership of Aiyuk’s fan club includes other PFF analysts, with Fantasy Football writer Kevin Cole backing Renner’s view about the 24-year-old’s breakout potential:

Then there’s Around The NFL editor Gregg Rosenthal, who noted how Aiyuk ended last season in fine form: “he finished 12th among all receivers with 570 yards after Week 10, per Next Gen Stats. His routes and YAC ability are next level, and he could benefit from Trey Lance’s ability to throw deep.”

Fortunately for the 49ers, the analysts might have this one right, at least based on how Aiyuk is performing during camp. He was singled out by NBC Sports’ Jennifer Lee Chan as “the most targeted receiver of the session” on Wednesday.

Chan’s positive impressions were echoed by Matt Barrows of The Athletic, who detailed Aiyuk’s efforts: “He caught one pass from Lance and three from Sudfeld. Samuel, meanwhile, is conducting a ‘hold in.’ He’s on-site for training camp but not practicing while a long-term deal is hammered out.”

The reference to Samuel’s ongoing uncertain status is telling. It means Aiyuk is under more pressure than expected to take his game up a level.

Aiyuk Building Chemistry with Lance

It’s hardly ideal for Lance to step into the starting role at a time when his best weapon is playing a waiting game over more money. Yet, Samuel’s absence is giving Aiyuk the opportunity he needs to became a receiver Lance can trust.

The third-overall pick in 2021 has been looking Aiyuk’s way early and often during camp, a trend that continued on the second day, per 49ers on NBCS:

Shanahan has been bullish about giving the team over to Lance at the expense of Jimmy Garoppolo, but it’s still a gamble. Any risk can be mitigated by Lance building chemistry with the key members of his supporting cast.

The group is headlined by Samuel, but somebody like Aiyuk still has a key role to play. In fact, his skill-set has welcome similarities with the way Samuel is able to gash defenses.

Both can attack coverage from anywhere along the formation but are particularly effective on inside routes, something ESPN’s Matt Bowen highlighted in Aiyuk’s game last season:

Significantly, Aiyuk’s play speed and tenacity show up in other phases of Shanahan’s offense. He can also make big plays as a runner, something the coach made use of during Aiyuk’s rookie campaign.

Aiyuk averaged 12.8 yards on six carries in 2020 and made his best contribution as a runner with this score against the New York Giants:

Given how Samuel is said to have “frustration” with how often he was used at running back last season, Aiyuk’s flair on the ground could have a dual benefit for the 49ers. It would mean keeping an effective schematic wrinkle part of the playbook, while also taking carries away from Samuel, something that may encourage him to come to terms on a new deal sooner rather than later.

It’s in the passing game where Aiyuk can make his biggest mark, though. The 2020 first-rounder’s early work with Lance will be crucial to accelerating the transition from Garoppolo, making every completion during camp a small, but necessary part of a vital process.

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