How San Francisco 49ers' Fred Warner elevated Brandon Aiyuk's game by 'annoying' him

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In the opening days of San Francisco 49ers training camp, linebacker Fred Warner made himself impossible to miss. No matter who had the ball, Warner always seemed to be nearby ready to swipe at it, talk trash or both.

That was particularly true for wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk. Warner's constant chirping left Aiyuk, just two days into camp, describing Warner as "annoying" and "irritating." There was, however, a method to Warner's madness.

"Specifically with Brandon, I chose him out," Warner said. "I specifically said I think he's ready to make that next step into playing at that elite level. And ever since he's gotten here, I've kind of gotten after him a little bit, going around the locker room and around the building. Because I know how much he has in him and I know if I kind of nag him a little bit, he's gonna start getting sick and tired of that and start to kind of hold his own. ... I'm just trying to get the best out of him, and that's it."

The immediate return on Warner's approach was a full-scale brawl at practice on Aug. 2, a fight that featured two run-ins between Warner and Aiyuk, including one in which the pair actually squared off against each other like it was a real boxing match.

The long-term fallout might be far more meaningful for both Aiyuk and the team.

Nearly two weeks into camp, Aiyuk has been the team's most consistent offensive performer. It's no small feat on a star-studded unit that includes tight end George Kittle, wideout Deebo Samuel and left tackle Trent Williams. The only argument seems to be whether Aiyuk has been the best performer on the field regardless of position.

"He's having an outstanding camp," free safety Jimmie Ward said. "I feel like he's having the best camp out of everybody on the team, offense and defense. OK, besides [end Nick] Bosa. ... But BA is taking his game to another level. It's crazy."

In an alternate universe, Aiyuk's breakout season would have come last season. Through a couple weeks of the 2021 training camp, Aiyuk had been consistently producing, though not quite to the level that he has in this one. That proved to be a summer mirage, as Aiyuk's play tapered off, and a hamstring injury near the end of camp pushed him down the depth chart.

Kyle Shanahan didn't see the growth he'd expected from Aiyuk after a promising rookie season. As a former receiver at Duke and the University of Texas, Shanahan holds receivers to a particularly high standard. Route running in his offense requires a combination of precision, violence and endurance that is hard for young wideouts to grasp.

Because Aiyuk, a first-round pick in 2020, entered the league in the middle of a pandemic, he didn't have the opportunity to learn those things during a normal offseason before either of his first two seasons.

Which is why, despite posting 60 receptions for 748 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games as a rookie, Aiyuk wasn't even starting to begin Year 2. Through the first six games of last season, Aiyuk had just nine receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown while being targeted 16 times. Aiyuk ran only 23.7 routes per game, and even when he was targeted, he was rarely open, creating an average of 1.72 yards of separation at the time passes arrived, per NFL Next Gen Stats.

"I think everyone knows how it started off last year," Shanahan said. "He was a little bit behind where I wanted him, and he accepted the challenge and handled it like a man and got so much better and just went to work."

From Week 8 through the NFC Championship Game, Aiyuk was targeted more than any Niners pass-catcher (83), tacking on 56 receptions for 865 yards while averaging 15.5 yards per reception. His average separation when targeted jumped to 3.29 yards.

Aiyuk and 49ers quarterback Trey Lance trained together for the second consecutive offseason in Southern California. Lance jokes that Aiyuk used to shoot him dirty looks and didn't say much in 2021, but Lance realized that's just how Aiyuk likes to operate when he's working.

This year, Lance and Aiyuk lived together and shaped their workout schedule to mimic training camp with sessions in three-day blocks around a day off. They emphasized something different each day, be it quick passes, play-action or deep balls. When the workouts were through, the pair would retire to the house, sit around the fire pit and spend time getting to know each other.

They even had lunch with Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, both of whom have offseason homes near San Diego, one day. When Aiyuk and Lance departed to do a hill run, Lynch joined them before they headed to the beach. The chemistry between the pair is already evident on the field, lending additional credence to the belief Aiyuk could emerge as Lance's favorite target when games begin.

"I give the credit to Brandon," Lance said. "That's the work he put in. I've been saying it since this spring, summer he was locked in this offseason. I think he had a goal of separating himself and becoming kind of a different player. And he's done that, man. ... He is making some really big plays and separating himself."

About halfway through the preseason, Shanahan sees a player who is coming off the ball with urgency, running at full speed on every play, using his hips and feet to create separation and attacking the ball with his hands when it's in the air. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans points to Aiyuk's improved ability to win contested catches even when he's well-covered.

Perhaps most important, Aiyuk has proved capable of doing all of those things every day, a requirement in a camp that is as much a test of will as it is football ability. He's done it all while enduring Warner, and he's rendered what happened early last season a distant memory.

"You have to go through things to learn," Aiyuk said. "I feel like I've been through a whole lot in my first two years, but I wake up every day just grateful for everything, every lesson learned."