Dubbed the YAK by folks with a flair for fun, which stands for “Yards After King,” Aiyuk was considered a slam dunk addition to Kyle Shanahan’s offense with the 25th overall pick and looked like the perfect on-field foil for Deebo Samuel. Like Samuel, Aiyuk could play inside or out, and when the ball does ultimately land in his hands, via a screen, quick slant, or five-yard out, the Arizona State product would magically transform into a punt returner looking to flip the field for his team.
And yet, through his first two seasons with the Niners, Aiyuk hasn’t quite lived up to those expectations.
Now granted, that doesn’t mean Aiyuk has been bad, mind you; au contraire, Aiyuk has the seventh-most yards and eighth-most catches of any player selected in the 2020 class, and his receiving touchdowns ranked sixth behind only Justin Jefferson, Gabriel Davis, Tee Higgins, CeeDee Lamb, and Chade Claypool. Considering Aiyuk has been cast as a WR2 over his professional tenure to date, his performances have been about as good as anyone could dream of.
Still, Aiyuk hasn’t quite “broken out” in the same way as Samuel in 2021, with a good bit of potential left under his ceiling as a player.
Fortunately, things are shaping up well for Aiyuk to finally become a household name outside of California, thanks to a near-perfect storm of opportunity and preparation.
Samuel’s Hype Is Good News for Other 49ers
In 2021, Samuel wasn’t the focal point of every opposing team’s scouting report when they faced off against the Niners. Mind you, he was still prominently featured, increasingly so as the seasons went on, but after missing half of the 2020 season with a stop-start string of injuries and a trip on the COVID list, his lackluster on-field production largely overshadowed the greater context of his efforts.
In 2022, that won’t be an issue; after putting up 1,405 on 77 catches versus 121 receiving targets, Samuel is going to draw quite a bit of attention on the field from opposing teams, as will George Kittle, who is widely considered the best tight end in the NFL.
At best, that leaves Aiyuk as the third option on the “to-stop” lists of opposing teams, maybe even lower, considering how opposing teams will have to commit defensive resources to slowing down the team’s collection of running backs and potentially even to stopping Trey Lance from ripping off the sort of runs that have made him a fantasy football favorite among fans far and wide.
If Aiyuk can take advantage of those opportunities, it will go a long way in getting him over the 1,000-yard mark and becoming the team’s true WR1B instead of just a very good WR2.
Shanahan Needs to Scheme Aiyuk As His WR1
It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Samuel doesn’t lead all 49ers wide receivers in targets in 2022.
He’s just too good of a receiver, he can make plays from more different alignments than seemingly any other pass-catcher in the NFL today, and when 3rd-and-9 rolls around, it’ll just be too easy for Shanahan to call for the “Deebo Special” where he lines up the best blockers on the outside and lets the 6-foot, 215-pound South Carolina product turn nothing into something off of a screen pass from behind the line.
With that being said, Aiyuk should be considered the Niners’ WR1 when scheming up play, especially on quick hitters and RPOs meant to capitalize on Lance’s abilities as a rusher.
While Samuel will draw the tougher matchups, the better cornerbacks, and even added support from safeties and coverage linebackers thanks to the desire of opposing defensive coordinators to shut down the Niners’ top target, that should leave plenty of opportunities for Aiyuk to face single coverage from opposing CB2s from defenses aligned in a single-high look.
After watching Aiyuk average 13.6 yards per reception over his NFL career while picking up an average of 5.48 yards after the catch, it’s clear the soon-to-be third-year wide receiver has a chance to become a serious performer for the Niners this fall and force opposing teams to finally play San Francisco like they have three premier pass-catchers, instead of just being the Samuel-Kittle show with a bunch of interchangeable parts around them.