Brandon Aiyuk holding his own among 49ers' array of offensive stars

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Even after posting a fourth straight stat line with at least six receptions and 80 receiving yards, San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk couldn't help but lament the one catch he didn't make.

Aiyuk and the Niners had just defeated the Los Angeles Chargers 22-16 on Nov. 13, and Aiyuk had done his part with six grabs for 84 yards. But when he went home and watched the game film, it was a third-down drop in the end zone that he couldn't shake.

With about nine minutes left in the third quarter, Aiyuk lost his defender with a perfect in-breaking route and dropped a pass from Jimmy Garoppolo that hit him in the chest.

"On the field, I didn't know it was like a gimme, a freebie, wide open," Aiyuk said. "So when I saw the film it was even more sickening. But I was just telling my friends and family leaving the hotel that those are the ones that like at the end of the season when everything is all said and done, it will always be plus one that should have been there."

While Aiyuk missed that easy touchdown chance, you'd be hard-pressed to find more missed opportunities for the third-year wideout in 2022. In fact, on a team full of established stars such as Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Christian McCaffrey, Aiyuk's emergence has flown under the radar.

Ten games into the season, Aiyuk is leading the 49ers in receiving yards (587) and touchdowns (six). In the four-game stretch before the Niners beat the Arizona Cardinals on Monday night, Aiyuk had 27 catches for 330 yards and three touchdowns. And while his streak of at least six and 80 ended in Mexico City, Aiyuk more than atoned for that by turning both of his catches into touchdowns.

At his current pace, Aiyuk has a chance at his first 1,000-yard receiving season and double-digit touchdowns.

"Brandon is having a great year," Kittle said. "He's playing at a high level."

While Aiyuk's emergence might seem like a surprise to some, it's not for anyone who paid attention last season. From Week 8 through the NFC Championship Game, Aiyuk had 56 receptions for 865 yards, averaging 15.5 yards per reception.

The turnaround came after some tough love from coach Kyle Shanahan, who emphasized to the receiver the importance of attacking every workout and practice the way you would a game. The idea, according to Aiyuk, was that if you establish the right habits daily they eventually become second nature and translate onto the field.

"You can be smarter with him because he has that foundation, he has that stamina to where he's built to go," Shanahan said. "And to me, that's how most of the great ones are, so they can be at their fullest every play."

Whatever concerns the Niners had about Aiyuk carrying his finishing flourish over to 2022 vanished quickly in OTAs when, according to teammates, he showed up bigger, stronger and faster for the offseason program. Aiyuk spent much of that time training with quarterback Trey Lance, and the two had an easy chemistry on the practice field.

In camp, Aiyuk was regularly one of the best players on the field, often using his 33.5-inch arms to make highlight reel catches that left teammates speechless. Those occasional flashes have turned into the standard, making multiple "Wow" catches.

It has only increased Garoppolo's confidence in Aiyuk, as he's more willing to throw to his receiver when he's well-covered because he knows he will win more often than not.

"It's kind of becoming routine, honestly," Garoppolo said. "His arms are so long that I'm learning his catch radius and how it's just different. He had one today over the middle, I put it high in front of him and he just went and got it. Some of those you do on purpose with the location of the defender and some he just makes you look good as a quarterback, so you love having a guy like that."

In an effort to help Aiyuk reach the next level, linebacker Fred Warner challenged him mentally and physically in training camp, never shying away from a thud in padded practices or a colorful verbal exchange. That eventually morphed into a heated fight in which Aiyuk and Warner squared up, leading to a brief halt in an early August practice.

"He's coming into his own," Warner said. "He's done an outstanding job for us. Every game you see him kind of get closer and closer to breaking that big one. ... He’s going to continue to grow, and I think the sky's the limit for him."

And when something does go awry, as it did in that singular moment against the Chargers, Aiyuk has the ability to quickly flush it and move on. Not long after the drop, he made a 24-yard catch to set up San Francisco's go-ahead touchdown, dragging a defender with him to get into the end zone. It's a play Garoppolo says he's not sure Aiyuk would have made last season.

"I think just as the season goes along you start to get more and more comfortable, but I'm just trying to continue to get better," Aiyuk said. "That's the thing. I still feel as if throughout the games we've played I've left a lot of plays out there, so that's my main thing is just trying to capitalize on every single opportunity and every play that I get."