49ers

49ers' Brandon Aiyuk's epic JUCO performance showed playmaking ability

49ers' Brandon Aiyuk's epic JUCO performance showed playmaking ability

The 49ers have high expectations for Brandon Aiyuk. They expect the 6-foot receiver with an 81-inch wingspan to stretch the field vertically, make people miss and change the tone of the game with one play.

Aiyuk showed off his game-breaking ability during his time at Arizona State, but the skills that made the 49ers gravitate toward him in the 2020 NFL Draft first took center stage at Sierra College in Rocklin, California. Aiyuk arrived at the school as a defensive back, but coach Ben Noonan realized Aiyuk was lethal with the ball in his hands.

Aiyuk finally broke through late in his freshman year. He played both sides of the ball during the last game that season, catching six balls for 121 yards and two touchdowns while holding his man to one catch for 20 yards, Noonan told ESPN's Nick Wagoner.

That summer, Noonan says Aiyuk dedicated himself to football, spending most of his time either in the weight room or working with the quarterbacks.

"It gets up to a good 110 degrees, and then he's out there until the daylight is gone with the quarterbacks after a four-hour day," Noonan told Wagoner. "And demanding that the quarterbacks stay, you know, whether their arm was falling off or not. And then the other thing that gives you perspective on his personality and work-ethic type of kid he was: He insisted on being on special teams."

Then, in his sophomore season, Aiyuk flashed more of his game-changing skills while on special teams. During a game against Santa Rosa College, Aiyuk returned a kick 76 yards for a touchdown, had six catches for 82 yards and two touchdowns and had 110 punt return yards with two touchdowns called back due to penalties.

"It was the most dominant junior college game I'd ever seen by anybody," Noonan told Wagoner.

With Emmanuel Sanders now in New Orleans with the Saints, the 49ers will expect Aiyuk to slot in immediately and fill that void, forming a fearsome three-headed monster with tight end George Kittle and Deebo Samuel.

The 49ers had Aiyuk atop their draft board along with Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb, and even debated taking Aiyuk at No. 13 overall. Instead, they waited, believing a sub-par 40 time caused by a core muscle injury might force the ASU star to slide. It did, and the 49ers traded up from No. 31 to No. 25, leapfrogging the Green Bay Packers, to get the guy head coach Kyle Shanahan wanted.

[RELATED: Kittle's potential extension could lead 49ers to trade Ford]

Aiyuk, Kittle and Samuel will give Shanahan three receivers who excel at making defenders miss, turning short gains into game-altering plays. Aiyuk could struggle to see target early in the season, but the 49ers plan for him to play big role in their 2020 Revenge Tour back to the Super Bowl.

Aiyuk has the ability to change the momentum of the game in a matter of seconds. It's been apparent since his days at Sierra College. That's why Herm Edwards brought him to Arizona State, and that's why Shanahan and general manager John Lynch made him a 49er.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

49ers' George Kittle falls short of 99 Madden 21 rating according to leak

49ers' George Kittle falls short of 99 Madden 21 rating according to leak

George Kittle is the best tight end in football, and arguably the best receiver regardless of position. Full stop.

But while the 49ers tight end has become a household name during his three-year NFL career, it appears his exploits haven't been enough to get him into a very select group: The "Madden 99 Club."

Details from Madden 21 slowly have been trickling out, and a potential leak by Twitter user "LeadingNFL" showed which players have been given a 99 overall rating in the latest iteration of the popular video game. While Patrick Mahomes, Christian McCaffrey, Aaron Donald and Stephon Gilmore all got the nod, Kittle came up just short in his quest for video-game greatness.

For 49ers fans who care about such things, this should be seen as disrespectful to the league's premier tight end. While Kittle is grouped with star receivers Michael Thomas and De'Andre Hopkins with a 98 rating, a case can be made that he deserves to be a member of the "Madden 99 Club," because of his ability to break tackles and his dominant ability as a run-blocker.

You'll find no arguments from me on any of the four members of the "Madden 99 Club."

Mahomes cemented himself as the best quarterback in the NFL when he erased a 10-point deficit against Kittle and the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. He's an unquestioned 99. As is Donald.

Gilmore was the best cornerback in football last season, and has been as dominant as they come since joining the New England Patriots. McCaffrey put up a tremendous season in 2019 despite being saddled with below-average quarterback play for the entire season. He's as elite a weapon as the NFL has to offer.

[RELATED: Kittle questions social distancing in 2020 NFL]

But Kittle belongs in that conversation. He caught 85 passes for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns last season, and his catch-and-run against the New Orleans Saints was the type of memorable play that soon won't be forgotten.

Kittle, who is trying to work out a contract extension with the 49ers, is in good company with Thomas and Hopkins. Those two, along with Julio Jones, are the three best receivers in the NFL, and Kittle certainly belongs on their level.

It's hard to break into the "Madden 99 Club." Perhaps one more season of dominance will get Kittle the point he needs to join video game immortality.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Ex-49ers teammate explains why Colin Kaepernick fits in today's NFL

Ex-49ers teammate explains why Colin Kaepernick fits in today's NFL

Around the NFL, every team is looking for the next Patrick Mahomes. The next Lamar Jackson, the next Deshaun Watson or Russell Wilson. 

The 49ers had exactly that in Colin Kaepernick, a game-changing dual-threat quarterback.

Seven-year pro Michael Thomas saw that firsthand back in 2012, the first year Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith as the 49ers' starting QB and led them to the Super Bowl. Thomas was a safety on the San Francisco's practice squad that year before carving out a role with the Miami Dolphins and New York Giants. He even made the Pro Bowl in 2018. 

And Thomas finds it unexplainable how NFL teams aren't fighting to get Kaepernick's skill set on the field. 

"He’s the type of quarterback that today’s NFL is built for," Thomas wrote as the guest writer for NBC Sports' Peter King's "Football Morning in America" column. "It’s built for the mobile quarterback, it’s built for the quarterback who can run but also throw. He’s that dual-threat option. He’s mobile, and he has a big arm that can hit the deep threat. He causes confusion for defenses if he gets into any kind of zone-read option. And obviously the RPO game is bigger than ever.

"Set aside for a second what the league would gain in terms of credibility by bringing him back. From a pure football standpoint, his style fits the league perfectly."

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Over his six-year career, five as a starter, Kaepernick has totaled 12,271 passing yards and 72 touchdowns through the air. He also has 2,300 career rushing yards and another 13 TDs. 

But Kaepernick hasn't played in the NFL since 2016, the same year he began first sitting then kneeling during the national anthem as a peaceful protest against racial and social injustices. Thomas, as a member of the Dolphins, played against Kaepernick that season and the QB was dominant. 

The less talented 49ers lost 31-24 in Miami, but Kaepernick's ability as a passer and runner were on full display. He completed 29 of 46 pass attempts for 296 yards, three touchdowns and was intercepted once. He also rushed 10 times for 113 yards, his last game with at least 100 yards rushing. 

[RELATED: These Montana highlights show 1989 playoff dominance]

The 49ers were just 1-9 going into the game against the 6-4 Dolphins. Kaepernick was tackled at the 2-yard line to end the game, just falling short of completely putting the team on his back in a rough road environment.

That also was nearly four years ago. There are no guarantees Kaepernick plays another game of football in his life. To Thomas, that's baffling, and understandably so.