Why Shanahan says Aiyuk is further along entering third season


SANTA CLARA — 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk is ahead of the game heading into the 2022 NFL season. 

After a tough start to his second NFL season, the Arizona State product took advantage of the offseason. Aiyuk did not want to lose the momentum he had started in the second half of the 2021 season and spent as much time as possible working out with second-year quarterback Trey Lance. 

Aiyuk built chemistry with Lance in several throwing sessions and even bonded with him by running up a “suicide hill” made of sand while in training in Southern California. 

Coach Kyle Shanahan has been very impressed with Aiyuk’s new approach to the offseason and explained the circumstances that led to the young receiver’s low production at the beginning of 2021. 

“His rookie season was COVID year,” Shanahan said. “He didn’t have anything in the offseason. He just showed up here and we didn’t even know until about two weeks before he showed up whether we were having a season or not, so he was a little behind and then training camp was kind of a joke for the whole league.”

After injures ravaged the 49ers' roster in 2020, Aiyuk closed out his first season in the league as the top receiver on the team catching 60 of his 96 targets for 748 yards and five touchdowns. His second season did not start out with the same momentum. 

“His experience is ‘Man, I just kind of showed up and I started all year and people say I’m going be one of the best guys next year,’ ” Shanahan said. “And he does have that ability, but he thought that was NFL. 

“And the next offseason COVID still, we didn’t have the right rules. And he didn’t know he had to do anything until camp, so he just came a little behind. And he was like, ‘Oh man, this camp’s tougher than last year.’ ”

In the first six contests of 2021, Aiyuk was targeted only 16 times, of which he registered nine receptions for 95 yards and two touchdowns. At that rate he would have finished the season with less than 300 yards. 

Instead, Aiyuk buckled down and went to work and Shanahan took notice. The wideout finished out the year with 65 catches for 961 yards and five touchdowns. 

“I think Brandon, instead of blaming other people and making excuses, he worked,” Shanahan said. “Didn’t say a lot, just kept going to work. And he’s a smart dude and he is perceptive and he learned, ‘Wow, this is right. This is totally different. Man, I’m going to be ready for Year Three, because Year Two was really my rookie year.’ 

“And that’s why he is so much further ahead right now. And sometimes guys have to get cut to learn that. And that’s what you hope guys don’t have to do, but guys have to learn it somewhere.”

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Maybe even more impressive to Shanahan is Aiyuk’s leadership in the locker room. The 24-year-old doesn’t want anyone else to go through what he experienced, so he is using his position to help prepare the younger players on the roster for what is to come as they begin their NFL careers.

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