Kyle Shanahan: WR Brandon Aiyuk ‘is a much better player right now’ than last year

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49ers second-year wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk started the season in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s proverbial dog house. While the early-season woes impacted the 2020 first-round pick’s production, Shanahan said Aiyuk has taken strides and improved immensely over where he was last season.

It’s hard to tell a story with numbers that says Aiyuk in 2021 is better than he was a season ago. This year through 11 games he has 32 catches for 432 yards and three touchdowns. Last year in 12 games he posted 60 catches for 748 yards and five touchdowns. Despite the decline in statistical output though, Shanahan on Friday told reporters Aiyuk is a better player this year.

“Yeah, I don’t even think it’s close. I think he is much a better player right now,” Shanahan said. “He’s better in the run game, better in the pass game, much more consistent and I think he’s getting better each week going on about four or five weeks in a row.”

That’s hard to believe given that he had just nine catches for 96 yards and one touchdown through seven weeks and was out-snapped by free agent signee Trent Sherfield in Week 1 while not earning a single target. The second-year receiver experienced a lot of growth in that time period though and Shanahan explained why the raw data doesn’t tell the full story of Aiyuk’s improvement.

“Yeah stats are some of the most – they sometimes can tell you the answers, but by no means do they tell you all the answers,” Shanahan said. “There’re times, I don’t want to give stats that I know, because it’d be an insult to some people. But there’s plenty of times stats will fool you. Especially with guys, stats are dependent on other people a lot, but he’s playing at a much – we got a lot more confidence in him now than we did last year.”

While numbers may not tell the whole story, it’s not a huge surprise to see Aiyuk’s numbers inflating over the last couple weeks to coincide with the improvement Shanahan has seen. In the last five games Aiyuk has 23 catches on 32 targets, 336 yards and two touchdowns. It’s been a dramatic shift from what we saw earlier in the year.

The things that aren’t quantified in the box score are starting to stand out too, though. During games his blocking either peeling back across to seal an edge defender or making blocks down the field, his aggressiveness in that area has really shone. Shanahan told reporters his assessment of Aiyuk stems in part from how he’s translating that edge as a blocker into other parts of his game.

“Yeah, I think what’s been cool, whether it’s a run play or pass play, I think he’s been the same on both and he does as good as he can on every play. And whatever that result is, you live with,” Shanahan said. “But the way he is blocking, which you guys are noticing, that’s how I see them running slants too. That’s how I see them going over the middle, just fearless. That’s how I see him running with the ball hard.

“On that third-and-11 at the end of the second quarter, I thought that was the best route that he’s had since he’s been here. And he needed to do it because if not, he would’ve been squeezed inside about four more inches where their plugger was waiting, (Minnesota Vikings LB Anthony) Barr, it would have been a tip or a pick. And he did a perfect route so he didn’t get squeezed at all. Jimmy [Garoppolo] ripped it in there and I just like how he looked after the catch, like how aggressive he is. And he’s gotten that mindset to me that’s now taken his talent to another level and should keep him going there.”

The 49ers are going to need Aiyuk to continue his ascension over the next couple weeks while Samuel deals with a groin injury. His numbers may not reflect that he’s a better player now, but getting some run without Samuel on the field should give him an opportunity to put up the stats to match his second-year jump.