Jerry Rice Names ‘Breakout’ Candidate for 49ers

Jerry Rice

Getty Jerry Rice knows who is going to be the "breakout" player for the 49ers in 2022.

Jerry Rice is hyped by the potential of one pass-catcher for the San Francisco 49ers during the 2022 NFL season. Surprisingly, the franchise leader in every meaningful receiving category isn’t talking about All-Pro duo Deebo Samuel and George Kittle.

Instead, Hall-of-Fame icon Rice is more excited about the player who can take some coverage away from the Niners’ primary weapons. He’s chosen a third-year pro who many believe is set for big things this season.

More important than any crowded bandwagon, the player Rice has chosen as the 49ers’ best breakout candidate has already forged a stellar connection with Trey Lance, who is entering the season as the starting quarterback for the first time in his NFL career.

Rice All In on Favored Lance Target

Speaking on Audacy’s 95.7 The Game’s Morning Roast with Bonta & Shasky, Rice named his breakout player:

Going into more detail, the league’s all-time receiving leader talked about what a banner campaign for Aiyuk would mean for Samuel and Kittle: “with all that single coverage and all that attention going on George Kittle too, this guy, he got to blossom this year. And if he does that, it’s going to take some of the pressure off Deebo Samuel and also George Kittle.”

Rice isn’t alone in thinking Aiyuk is ready for big things this year. It’s a prediction shared by many, including Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer and Dieter Kurtenbach of The Mercury News.

To make all of his supporters look smart, Aiyuk will need to build on what has so far been modest production for a former first-round pick. Drafted 25th overall in 2020, Aiyuk has yet to break even 850 yards or top five touchdown catches in a season.

Fortunately, the chances of Aiyuk boosting his numbers look good, thanks mostly to how well he’s been working with Lance.

Aiyuk and Lance Connection Already Strong

It’s a common theme to applaud Aiyuk for the strong work he’s done building a rapport with Lance this offseason. Speaking on Good Morning Football, Peter Schrager said “These guys worked out together and they brought what they did in the spring to the summer… All anyone out of Niners’ camp is talking about is how good Aiyuk is. How Good Aiyuk has looked because of Lance throwing him the rock.”

Schrager’s words followed those of NBC Sports Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco, who told A Good Football Show: “Pretty much everywhere Trey Lance went this offseason, Brandon Aiyuk was right there. They’ve built a nice rapport.”

There’s more than just talk. Lance and Aiyuk have successfully put their chemistry into action with numerous spectacular plays during training camp, like this one captured by Akash Anavarathan of SB Nation’s Niners Nation:

Quarterback and receiver linking together with this much timing and precision once the real action begins is a different story. Yet, there are ample reasons to believe in Aiyuk’s potential to be a breakout star.

First, there’s the not-so small matter of how much attention defenses have to pay to Samuel and Kittle. It’s something Rice alluded to and is also the best incentive Aiyuk has to step up and make the most of his opportunities in one-on-one coverage matchups.

Then there’s Lance’s obvious comfort level throwing to the ex-Arizona State standout. Having spent his rookie season as Jimmy Garoppolo’s backup, Lance had fewer opportunities to connect with go-to targets like Samuel and Kittle.

Lance has been given the reins to the offense this year, so he’s likely to lean on those he knows more and trusts, at least early in the season. That means Aiyuk should be in for a big day when the 49ers face the Chicago Bears in Week 1.

It will be interesting to see how head coach Kyle Shanahan works out a bigger role for Aiyuk in a Lance-led offense. The answer is not an easy one considering Aiyuk offers crossover skills with Samuel’s game.

Using Samuel as a running back transformed San Francisco’s offense last season, but there were rumors this offseason the Pro-Bowler was unhappy with his role, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport.

Perhaps Aiyuk will break out as a versatile runner, receiver who takes many of the carries Samuel no longer wants. He’s already proved he can make the same impact on the ground with this rushing score against the New York Giants from 2020:

Aiyuk has the skill-set to quickly become Lance’s favorite receiver. He’s also dynamic and versatile enough to encourage Shanahan to add yet more wrinkles to the playbook.

If those things happen, Aiyuk will be one of the league’s biggest breakout stars.