Trey Lance can elevate Brandon Aiyuk to new heights in 2022

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Having recently used clips of their workouts to poke fun at talk of “arm fatigue”, it’s clear Trey Lance and Brandon Aiyuk have spent a lot of time on the practice field during the offseason and taking steps to develop chemistry that was already apparent late in the 2021 season.

In Lance’s second start for the 49ers against the Houston Texans last year, his leading receiver was Aiyuk, who hauled in four catches for 94 yards in a 23-7 win.

When Lance was scrambling in the shadow of his end zone in the first half, it was Aiyuk who uncovered to give him an avenue to move the chains. As the game progressed, their rapport and timing became clear as Lance connected with Aiyuk for two of the longest completions of the contest — a 27-yarder late in the second quarter and a 43-yard catch and run at the start of the third.

Aiyuk’s standout showing was one in a series of strong performances down the stretch from the 2020 first-round pick, who had initially appeared to fall out of favor with head coach Kyle Shanahan. By the end of the year, Aiyuk was one of the most efficient wide receivers in the NFL.

He finished the 2021 season in Football Outsiders DVOA, which measures per-play value. Per nflindex.com, Aiyuk was 15th in Expected Points Added per play among receivers with at least 50 plays.

In the Texans’ game, receptions by Aiyuk resulted in 0.84 EPA per play. To illustrate the impressiveness of that average, DeAndre Hopkins led all receivers with 0.66 EPA per play over the course of the season.

It’s clear Lance and Aiyuk had something going against Houston and the transition at quarterback that will see Lance take over as the starter could be a change that unlocks another aspect of Aiyuk’s game and leads to a breakout year three for a player Shanahan has already praised for an outstanding offseason.

Aiyuk had 16 receptions of 20 yards or more last season, tied for 12th in the NFL. While Jimmy Garoppolo was able to harness Aiyuk’s ability to create yardage after the catch, the former Arizona State star’s potential as a downfield receiver remains largely untapped.

Reflecting the rarity in which Garoppolo attacked downfield, Aiyuk’s average depth of target of 9.8 yards in 2021 was 81st in the NFL, per Pro Football Reference. On plays where the ball traveled over 15 yards in the air, Aiyuk’s EPA per play was 0.115, 82nd among receivers involved in at least 10 such plays.

Aiyuk is an extremely polished route runner with a proclivity for getting open on post routes and deep digs who, contrary to what many thought coming out of college, can excel in contested catch situations.

Yet Garoppolo does not go downfield often enough for Aiyuk to have the opportunities to excel consistently as a deep receiver. Garoppolo averaged 7.6 air yards per attempt last season. Across his two and a half games as the starter, Lance averaged 9.5, the fourth-most of all quarterbacks with a minimum of 50 plays.

In 2022, San Francisco’s offense will still be one that features an emphasis on the run game and will continue to rely heavily on short and intermediate routes where receivers are schemed into open space.

Yet it will change around Lance. Coaches and coordinators ultimately must play to the strengths of their quarterback and the Niners’ new signal-caller boasts strengths Garoppolo does not in his aggressiveness and accuracy in pushing the ball downfield.

San Francisco, therefore, will likely attack deep more often this coming season, and, having already displayed signs of chemistry in high-pressure regular season action, Aiyuk stands to benefit significantly from the switch to Lance and a more aggressive approach to the passing game.

With an entire training camp in which to build on that understanding, Aiyuk is in an excellent position to blossom as a deep receiver in Lance’s first season as a starter and emphatically vindicate his draft status with a career year.