The 49er's roster has some pretty serious talent, and one particular high-profile selection has undergone significant growth in the previous season, positioning himself as a strong contender for the 2023 Pro Bowl. Brandon Aiyuk's journey with the 49ers has been somewhat chaotic, but after his third season, he is undeniably on the path envisioned by San Francisco when they traded up to select him as their second first-round pick in the 2020 draft.
Despite facing challenges in his rookie year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Aiyuk's 2021 season raised concerns about his ability to make an impact, leading to questions about his standing with coach Shanahan.
However, Aiyuk persevered and regained his position as a key player in the passing game, finishing the year strongly and carrying that momentum into an exceptional 2022 season.
During this time, Aiyuk achieved a milestone by surpassing 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in his career and recorded a career-high of eight touchdowns. Yet, it is his performance in advanced metrics that truly highlights his impact on the team.
Aiyuk's route-running has always been his strong suit. He excels as a technician in this area, displaying remarkable change of direction flexibility, which he consistently uses to outmaneuver coverage. Employing a combination of precise footwork, head fakes, and quick bursts, Aiyuk expertly creates separation from defenders, making him a serious threat on the field.
His proficiency for getting the better of defenders when lined up one on one is reflected by his performance against man coverage in 2022. When faced with Cover 1, Cover 2 man or Cover 0 last season, Aiyuk averaged 0.52 Expected Points Added per target, according to Sports Info Solutions. That put him seventh among wide receivers with at least 25 targets against those coverages. His average of 3.1 yards per route run against those coverages put him tied for eighth with Amon-Ra St. Brown and Tyreek Hill.
Going over the middle into congested areas is a pre-requisite for Shanahan receivers and Aiyuk shows little fear in that regard. He displays excellent concentration catching the football, with only seven of the 39 pass-catchers with at least 100 targets recording fewer drops than Aiyuk's four.
Aiyuk's prowess in tight spaces makes him an effective red zone receiver. In 2022, he caught 10 of 15 red zone targets, with six resulting in touchdowns. Only four players had more red zone touchdowns, and just two of them were wide receivers. He's also impressive after the catch, averaging 4.9 yards per reception, outperforming the expected 4.3 yards.
Aiyuk doesn't rely on elite physical traits to defeat coverage. He excels at making difficult catches in tight areas and consistently gains more yards after the catch than expected. Moreover, he fully embraces the need for determined perimeter blocking, a non-negotiable trait for Shanahan receivers.
But perhaps the most significant factor in considering him a potential Pro Bowler for 2023 is his rapport with two of the quarterbacks on the depth chart. Aiyuk worked closely with Trey Lance last offseason, having previously displayed an impressive understanding with the third overall pick during Lance's brief time on the field in 2021. They had little chance to further develop their on-field relationship because of Lance's 2022 injury, but Aiyuk quickly became one of Brock Purdy's favorite targets when he was thrust into the starting job. Across Purdy's five regular-season starts, Aiyuk and Kittle were tied for the lead for receptions among 49er pass-catchers with 22 each.
Aiyuk's journey with the 49ers has been filled with challenges, but his resilience and dedication have catapulted him onto a trajectory that aligns with the team's vision when they drafted him in 2020. His exceptional route-running, ability to excel against man coverage, and proficiency in congested areas make him a formidable threat on the field. Furthermore, Aiyuk's effectiveness in the red zone and after the catch, along with his commitment to perimeter blocking, add immense value to his role as a receiver. With his strong rapport with multiple quarterbacks on the roster, Aiyuk has all the elements to be a serious contender for the 2023 Pro Bowl.