SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- A little more than halfway through his rookie season, San Francisco 49ers receiver Brandon Aiyuk has flashed plenty of potential even if it hasn't always showed up in the numbers.
With the Niners ravaged by injuries, especially at the skill positions, there's plenty of reason to believe Aiyuk will be one of the top reasons to watch the 49erss over the final seven games. Don't believe it? Take it from legendary wide receiver Jerry Rice.
"He's going to get much better," Rice told ESPN. "I think, as he gets older, he's going to continue to develop, and I'm expecting big things from him, to be honest with you. Because I think he has everything where he’s got the route running, where he’s got the hands, that awareness on the football field, and he's one of those guys that he knows he's a playmaker and that he could put points on the board at any time."
That's high praise from perhaps the greatest to ever do it. Thus far, Aiyuk has appeared in seven of nine games, missing one with a lingering hamstring injury and one because of close contact with wideout Kendrick Bourne, who had tested positive for COVID-19.
Aiyuk has 28 receptions for 371 yards and two touchdowns in addition to four carries for 69 yards and two more scores. With Deebo Samuel working his way back from a hamstring injury and tight end George Kittle out for about eight weeks with a fractured foot, all eyes turn to Aiyuk to pick up the slack.
In his two most recent games, he was up to the task, ringing up 14 catches for 206 yards and a score. That left coach Kyle Shanahan impressed and ready to put more on Aiyuk's plate. In fact, before Aiyuk was added to the reserve/COVID-19 list last week, he was in line to be prominently featured in the offense against Green Bay.
Those opportunities eventually went to Richie James, who finished with career highs in catches (nine) and receiving yards (184) to go with a touchdown. It's not hard to envision Aiyuk having numbers every bit as good or better had he been able to play.
“I've been very proud of Brandon these last few weeks," Shanahan said. "Just like we did to Deebo his rookie year, we're putting a little bit more pressure on him earlier than I would like to. You don't like to put all that on a guy coming in and especially a guy who missed most of training camp and didn't have an offseason. What I've loved about him is the pressure that he's had, you don't get to learn, you think you do good from, the standard of your whole life and then you get into a meeting with us on Monday and you have no idea how we see it. A lot of guys don't react totally the right way. Just us challenging Brandon and putting that pressure on him, I see a guy who's responded in the right way."
Despite not having a full offseason program and training camp to get acclimated because of the COVID-19 pandemic and then a hamstring injury, Aiyuk has taken to Shanahan's playbook quicker than expected. He has also endeared himself to veteran teammates through his attention to detail and willingness to learn.
Recounting a recent chat with Aiyuk, quarterback Nick Mullens said the rookie wideout has grown and adapted as the season has gone along. Mullens said Aiyuk has begun to understand what it means to be a pro.
"It's a funny conversation," Mullens said. "He was telling me about how in college you kind of know what opponent you're going to get that week so you might not have to practice as hard because you already know that you're better than them. But, once you get to the NFL, you realize any team can beat any team at any week. And so, he’s starting to figure that out, figuring out that the way you practice is the way that you play each and every single week. And so, he's balling out in the games, but he's balling out in practice too. And that just comes with rookie maturation, and it's really cool to watch.”
For Aiyuk, that maturation includes a better understanding of how to take care of his body, especially when things like treatment aren't on the team's schedule. In the classroom, Aiyuk has also taken to the lessons of receivers coach Wes Welker, who hammers home the idea of going into every game with a plan.
Early in the season, Aiyuk said he would go into a game and get caught up in what the route or his job was on certain plays. He didn't pay much attention to what the defense was doing and didn't understand how to attack it.
Now, Aiyuk said things have slowed down.
"When I'm lined up where I'm supposed to be and in the right spots, I think it just plays out a lot better that way," Aiyuk said.
With so many injuries around him, it's reasonable to expect Aiyuk's role will continue to grow. Which means more opportunities to get involved in the offense in unique ways and set himself up to be an offensive centerpiece for years to come.
"You can tell he's really starting to come in into his own," Rice said. "I’m expecting big things from him -- he’s going to continue to grow and get better."