One of the small melodramas early in the rocky 2021 season for the San Francisco 49ers has been the progress — or lack thereof — of WR Brandon Aiyuk.
Last year’s team leader in receptions and receiving yards caught criticism from 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan after the Niners’ Week 1 win over the Detroit Lions for not having done enough to earn his way back into the starting lineup. Shanahan gave the blunt assessment after Aiyuk wasn’t targeted once that afternoon.
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Since then, Shanahan has been gentler in his assessments, clarifying that Aiyuk has been primarily slowed by a hamstring injury he suffered in the preseason and that the Arizona State product is progressing toward his former starter status slowly.
Yet, as the Niners head into their bye during Week 6, Aiyuk’s production still hasn’t been there, leaving NFL experts, pundits and fans alike scratching their head on what’s really happening with the former first-round pick.
On Wednesday, October 13, 49ers GM John Lynch tackled the topic during a KNBR radio interview, and his insights didn’t paint Aiyuk in a glowing light. Lynch said Aiyuk hasn’t done enough to meet the organization’s expectations.
“Brandon has not made the strides we expect him to,” Lynch told the show. “We probably hold him to a higher standard because he’s got so much in his body, and it’s important for a team to see people earn those opportunities.”
Lynch complimented Aiyuk’s ability and work ethic in his response, but his answer also hinted that the player and the organization weren’t seeing eye-to-eye on certain things, whatever those details may be.
“He’s a very talented young man, and a hard worker as well,” Lynch said. “We’ve gone to great lengths to try to 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 talents and abilities on the field.
“Having said that, I think you earn your opportunities and you do that during the week. It’s not as if Brandon’s not working hard, it’s that for whatever reason, Brandon has not made the strides we expect him to.”
Even With Kittle Out, Aiyuk’s Targets Are Minimal
Aiyuk, the 25th overall selection in the 2020 draft, was the team’s leading receiver as a rookie with 748 yards and five touchdown receptions.
Through five weeks in 2021, he has eight catches on 15 targets for 90 yards.
The lack of production has been especially noticeable given the lopsided nature of San Francisco’s passing attack. Fellow wideout Deebo Samuel, a clear No.1 receiver, and tight end George Kittle have accounted for more than half the team’s receptions and targets.
But when Kittle missed last week’s game against the Arizona Cardinals, the 49ers didn’t turn to Aiyuk to help fill that production loss. Aiyuk was targeted four times, two of which he caught for 32 yards, in the 17-10 defeat. One of Aiyuk’s catches was a dazzling one-handed grab in traffic.
Lynch noted the need to fill Kittle’s absence during the interview, but suggested that Aiyuk hadn’t been ready to fill that role, although that could change with more work from the wide receiver.
“He’s got the makings of not just a starting football player in this league but a very good one at that critical position,” Lynch said. “So to be able to complement Deebo (Samuel), with George out for right now, we need that explosiveness in our offense. And that starts this week. Every day it’s important we figure that out.”
Lynch: Aiyuk Hasn’t Earned His Opportunities Yet
The 2-3 49ers next play on Sunday Night Football on October 24 against the 1-4 Indianapolis Colts. NBC Sports Bay Area reporter Matt Maiocco reported that NBC doesn’t have plans to flex out of the game for a matchup of better teams.
When they do play, it’s uncertain who the 49ers quarterback will be. Quarterbacks Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance are both nursing lower-body injuries, but both could be available in time for the Week 7 game in Santa Clara. If Garoppolo is healthy, Shanahan has said that he would likely play.
Regardless of who is throwing the ball, Lynch’s comments suggest that everything surrounding Aiyuk’s playing time has to do with Aiyuk himself. He said the 49ers have communicated what they expect from Aiyuk and of maximizing his abilities, and it’s up to only the receiver himself to meet that.
“I think there’s been really good communication of late to try and get that out of him,” Lynch said. “It’s not as if he’s a guy who doesn’t work hard, I think it’s just everybody getting on the same page. I think he’s got to earn those opportunities, but I feel like it’s really important for him to become a part of what we’re doing moving forward.”
The 49ers are early 5-point favorites in Week 7, according to oddsmakers.