SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Based on evidence from 2020 and how the San Francisco 49ers started training camp, the idea of a breakout season for one of their wide receivers seemed like a realistic possibility.
Nine games into the 2021 season, they have one of the league's biggest revelations at wide receiver. It just hasn't been the receiver many thought it would be as recently as August.
Samuel's ascent has been a welcome sight for the Niners after his injury-plagued 2020, but Aiyuk's recent resurgence has been nearly as important for the short and long term. The offense has been Samuel-centric and needs balance, and there are signs that Aiyuk gives the Niners a third good option in the pass game alongside Samuel and tight end George Kittle.
"Whenever guys are coming on like that and playing better every week, it makes a quarterback's job easier," quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. "But I mean, when you could just distribute it differently, you guys dropped the stat with Deebo having such a high percentage a couple of weeks ago, when we could get away from that and get other guys the ball, we have a lot of playmakers on this team and so whenever we could do that, it's always a good thing."
One of the more confounding issues during the 49ers' 4-5 season thus far was Aiyuk's near disappearance from the offensive game plan in the first six games. A hamstring injury slowed him near the end of training camp and was at least partially responsible for his lack of chances in Week 1, but he still wasn't much of a factor in the ensuing five games.
Through six games, Aiyuk had just nine receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown while being targeted just 16 times. It wasn't just a lack of targets, either, as Aiyuk averaged only 23.7 routes run per game.
Over the past three games, Aiyuk has looked more and more like the receiver who appeared ready to seize the No. 1 wideout job entering the season. In games against the Chicago Bears, Arizona Cardinals and Los Angeles Rams, Aiyuk has 13 receptions, 160 yards and a touchdown on 19 targets while averaging 29.3 routes run. He's also been a physical blocker who the Niners have counted on to help revitalize their outside running game.
How has Aiyuk turned it around?
"I think it's more of just a thing of just stacking [days]," Aiyuk said. "Taking it personal, every rep, every play, every day in practice type of thing. ... One play is over and the next one comes and treating every single play like the first play."
For Aiyuk to come to that realization, it took some time and prodding. After a Week 5 loss to the Cardinals in which he had two catches for 32 yards, the Niners entered their bye with Aiyuk's tailspin as one of the biggest questions. Aiyuk sat down with his coaches for an honest assessment of where he was.
One of those meetings was with coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. According to Lynch, Shanahan and Aiyuk both "got some things off their chest" but the overall tone of the conversation was one of honesty and gave Aiyuk a better understanding of what was frustrating the staff. Aiyuk also sought and received advice from veteran wideout Mohamed Sanu, as well as fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who is Aiyuk's locker neighbor.
"I kind of just took that as after the bye week, that was the start of the season and Week 1," Aiyuk said. "And kind of just taking that approach every week. So, it's like this week is the first week of the season. This is the first week of practice. Taking that approach so it's just like you are re-asserting yourself every single week."
That approach can be difficult for young players to put into practice. Kittle recently detailed that process, noting that you have to find the mental energy to be committed in meetings and film study every day, then take the same approach on the field every day, all while knowing that "your body is going to feel like absolute crap."
"I think it just takes young guys a while to realize that," Kittle said. "I'm not saying that was Aiyuk, I'm saying young guys in general, but I think Aiyuk has done a better job of being deliberate every single rep that he gets."
Making matters more complicated is a Niners' offense that asks a lot of its receivers, whether it's the lengthy playcalls, ample use of pre-snap motion, demanding blocking requirements or the necessary precision of each route. If it's not there, the coaching staff will know, something Shanahan has alluded to when talking about how he makes use of the speed data he receives from the chips inserted in players pads.
If someone isn't going full speed, it will show up and coaches will know it. Aiyuk hadn't been hitting the expected marks and it was showing up in games, where his average yards of separation from the nearest defender when targeted was just 1.72 yards. That's down from 2.84 in his rookie season and has rebounded to 2.3 in the past three games.
"It has to do with just how you do everything," Shanahan said. "We have the GPS on all these guys and track how hard they run each day. Things like that. And just being consistent with it. And Aiyuk's strung together a number of really good weeks. And that's what's been encouraging about him."