The 49ers managed to beat the New York Giants easily on Thursday night, but they had to get past their NFC rival without star wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.
The fourth-year pro missed the 49ers' Week 3 win with a left shoulder injury and his absence was noticeable early in the primetime game at Levi's Stadium.
Quarterback Brock Purdy struggled early, clearly missing his favorite target. And because of this, NBC Sports Bay Area's Donte Whitner came to a stark conclusion after the game.
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"Brandon Aiyuk is as valuable to this 49ers offense as Christian McCaffrey," Whitner said on the latest "Hitner's Hot Take" segment. "And it was evident early in the game versus the New York Giants. They missed his ability to stretch the defense vertically, to win consistently versus man coverage and especially being Brock Purdy's No. 1 target in the red zone."
Aiyuk had a breakout 2022 NFL season, proving his worth to the 49ers with 78 receptions for 1,015 yards and eight touchdown catches.
Through the first two games of the 2023 season, Aiyuk has caught 11 passes from Purdy for 172 yards, with two touchdown receptions.
McCaffrey, in his own right, has been a game-changer for the 49ers since he was acquired in a 2022 midseason trade with the Carolina Panthers. Through three games this season, the 2017 first-round draft pick is looking like his old 2019 All-Pro self, having rushed 60 times for an NFL-leading 353 yards.
San Francisco 49ers
While McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel and George Kittle all had impressive performances in the 49ers' 30-12 win over the Giants on Thursday night, Whitner is convinced Aiyuk is as important to their future success as anyone.
"If the 49ers are going to run the table, they need a healthy Brandon Aiyuk at the top of his game," Whitner concluded.