Aiyuk’s ability to gain yards after the catch is a staple, as are his wingspan and route running. But the biggest common denominator has to do with what he could become.
“I still feel like I haven’t even scratched the surface of what I can do as a football player and at the receiver position,” Aiyuk said. “I just think that for me, the ceiling is limitless. I don’t think there’s a ceiling to my game.”
The 49ers fell in love with Aiyuk during the pre-draft process after a senior season at Arizona State in which he posted 1,192 receiving yards, averaged 31.8 yards per kickoff return and averaged a whopping 10.5 yards per reception after the catch.
That home run ability caused Niners coach Kyle Shanahan to view Aiyuk as one of the two best receivers in the draft, along with Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb. In fact, San Francisco liked Aiyuk so much it considered taking him with the No. 13 overall pick. That choice was eventually traded for No. 14 and became defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw.
But as Aiyuk continued to slip closer to the Niners’ second first-round pick at No. 31, they decided to get aggressive. They moved up in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings and selected Aiyuk at No. 25, the highest pick they’ve used on a wideout since Michael Crabtree in 2009. The idea is to pair Aiyuk with emerging star wideout Deebo Samuel, who, like Aiyuk, is known for his ability to evade and run through tacklers.
In Aiyuk, Shanahan sees a player who can help fill the void left by Emmanuel Sanders, the veteran wideout acquired in the middle of last season who departed for the New Orleans Saints in free agency. Although Aiyuk specializes in taking short passes and turning them into long gains, Shanahan said he believes Aiyuk can play any of the team’s receiver positions and, like Sanders, has the ability to be a threat at all levels of the field.
“It didn’t matter where you put him and it didn’t matter what the play was, and that’s what we got a little bit with Emmanuel when we traded for him, and that’s what I think we’re getting with Brandon,” Shanahan said.
“This guy wants to be great. I want someone like that. And I think he has the tools to be great. I think he has the mindset to be great, and I promise you schematically we’re going to give him every chance to do that.”
Aiyuk’s journey to the 49ers as a first-round pick was far from traditional. Coming out of McQueen High School in Reno, Nevada, Aiyuk had played all over the field, including running back, but most of his film was of him playing cornerback. In 2016, Aiyuk landed at Sierra College in Rocklin, California, the former home of the 49ers’ training camp.
There, Sierra coach Ben Noonan recognized Aiyuk’s potential as a wide receiver, even though he was mostly recruited as a defensive back. Noonan said it seemed like every time Aiyuk got his hands on the football, whether that was as a returner or on defense, he managed to turn it into a touchdown.
“It’s like the dude always ended up in the end zone,” Noonan said. “It’s just like we have got to get the ball in this guy’s hands a lot.”
It wasn’t until the fourth game of his freshman year that Aiyuk broke into the starting lineup, but by the final game of the season, he had emerged as a star. In that last game, Aiyuk started at wide receiver and cornerback — assigned to cover the opponent’s top receiver. Aiyuk finished with six catches for 121 yards and two touchdowns and, according to Noonan, held his man to one catch for 20 yards.
That performance jump-started an offseason in which Noonan saw Aiyuk devote himself to football. Noonan found Aiyuk in the weight room constantly, improving his squat from 275 pounds coming out of high school to 500 pounds by May 2017. That work ethic carried over to the practice field, where Aiyuk routinely stayed for 30 minutes after every practice working on routes in the Rocklin heat.
“It gets up to a good 110 degrees, and then he’s out there until the daylight is gone with the quarterbacks after a four-hour day,” Noonan said. “And demanding that the quarterbacks stay, you know, whether their arm was falling off or not. And then the other thing that gives you perspective on his personality and work-ethic type of kid he was: He insisted on being on special teams.”
In a game against Santa Rosa College during his sophomore season, Aiyuk showed off his special-teams abilities with a 76-yard kickoff return for a touchdown and four punt returns for 110 yards (with a pair of touchdowns called back for penalties) to go with six catches for 82 yards and two more touchdowns.
“It was the most dominant junior college game I’d ever seen by anybody,” Noonan said.
By that point, Aiyuk began drawing attention from top programs, including Arizona State. Herm Edwards had just taken over as the Sun Devils coach and needed a wideout with some experience. Aiyuk spent his first year in Tempe biding his time behind N’Keal Harry, whom the New England Patriots selected with the 32nd pick of the 2019 NFL draft.
While Aiyuk’s production was limited to 33 catches for 474 yards and three touchdowns as a junior, Edwards saw his NFL potential and physical gifts. Aiyuk has almost 10-inch hands and an 81-inch wingspan, which is almost unheard of for a player who’s 6 feet tall. For the sake of comparison, former Detroit Lions wideout Calvin Johnson had an 82-inch wingspan and was 6-foot-5.
“All those things were, you check the boxes, and then I just think his competitive attitude,” Edwards said. “He loves to compete, you know. I mean, everything is about trying to compete and win. I mean he’s about that. That’s his DNA.”
Replacing Sanders from a production and leadership standpoint is probably too big of an ask for Aiyuk as a rookie, but Edwards believes he can be a difference-maker as a returner or a wideout with a limited route tree. The lack of a full offseason to get acclimated won’t help Aiyuk’s cause, but Edwards has faith.
“He never stops learning, and that’s the one thing that good football players understand,” Edwards said. “No coach in the history of coaches has ever given a player talent. They give them information. He’s an information gatherer. He’s not naive, by any stretch of the imagination.
“You have to be very disciplined and very focused, and he understands those things.”