After just two games, 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk has shown he can follow in Deebo Samuel’s footsteps on the way to a productive rookie season. Late in the third quarter of the 49ers’ 36-9 win over the New York Giants in Week 3, running back Jeff Wilson lined up in the backfield while Kendrick Bourne went in motion. In a jet sweep, Aiyuk took the handoff from quarterback Nick Mullens 19 yards for a touchdown.
You couldn't watch the play without thinking how coach Kyle Shanahan used Samuel, then a rookie, as a runner last season. Shanahan said that wasn't the primary reason the 49ers traded up in the 2020 NFL Draft to select Aiyuk with the 25th overall pick, but it didn't hurt the rookie's case, either. "You don't take guys just to hand the ball off to them,” Shanahan said Monday. “The same thing with Deebo. But when they are physical runners, when they have the speed to do it and they compete while doing it, it's always a good bonus.”
Samuel has not yet played this season after sustaining a Jones fracture in his left foot during the offseason. The 49ers activated Samuel off injured reserve on Wednesday ahead of his return to practice this week, but Aiyuk has been very effective in Samuel's absence. Shanahan's offensive mind likely is overflowing of the possibilities when both receivers finally are available to him. In his rookie season, Samuel led all 49ers wide receivers with 57 receptions (on 81 targets) for 802 yards. Samuel also caught three touchdowns and rushed for three more, running for 159 yards on 14 carries. Aiyuk, who has 122 all-purpose yards on 10 touches in his first two games, could be just as integral in Shanahan's offense.
The young receivers also share an ability to pick up yards after they catch the ball. Both were tough runners in college, and their toughness has translated at the start of their respective NFL careers. Samuel averaged 8.4 yards after the catch per reception in 2019. Aiyuk averaged just 4.4 YAC in his first two games, but he also hasn't shied away from contact so far. By the end of the season, the rookie's numbers could look a lot like Samuel's did in 2019. “Deebo’s someone who is as good as I've been around at doing that last year,” Shanahan said. “Aiyuk showed that a lot in his college tape, whether it was just catching the ball and running after the catch or getting some handoffs. “He's been really good in practice with us so far, too. It's good to have a few guys out there you can choose to do it and do it with, and I think we have more than just those two also.”
While Samuel is scheduled to be back on the practice field, it's not clear if he'll play against the Philadelphia Eagles on "Sunday Night Football" at Levi's Stadium.
Samuel will play alongside Aiyuk sooner rather than later, and that possibility undoubtedly excites Shanahan.