Brandon Aiyuk entered the season with many believing the second-year receiver was destined to take a leap in 2021.
That expectation got off to a rocky start Sunday when Aiyuk played just 26 snaps and got zero targets in the 49ers' 41-33 win over the Detroit Lions.
Aiyuk getting leapfrogged by Trent Sherfield in the 49ers' wide receiver rotation naturally sent a panic shockwave throughout the fan base.
When you have a receiver as talented as Aiyuk who you traded up to draft in the first round, you want him to follow a linear trajectory to stardom. An unexpected speedbump has led many to believe Aiyuk is in coach Kyle Shanahan's doghouse and could potentially be following Dante Pettis' path from high draft pick to out of town on a rail.
But it's not time to panic about Aiyuk just yet. This situation requires a little bit of nuance, so we'll look at three things that can be true about the situation with the 49ers' receiver.
Good depth is a good problem to have
Last season, when Aiyuk led the 49ers in receiving, San Francisco had massive depth problems at wideout. With Deebo Samuel playing in just seven games and Kendrick Bourne a slot staple, the only options other than Aiyuk on the outside were Richie James Jr., Pettis, and a rotating cast of practice squad players than included a less-than-100-percent Mohamed Sanu, Kevin White and Jordan Mathews.
Things are different this season with Sherfield in the mix. The 25-year-old had a great training camp and preseason and has gained the trust of Jimmy Garoppolo, Trey Lance and Shanahan. With Samuel healthy and Sherfield proving reliable, Aiyuk, who was battling a hamstring injury toward the end of the camp, isn't needed to provide 40-50 snaps.
While Shanahan claimed Sunday that the 49ers limited Aiyuk's snaps vs. the Lions to be cautious with the receiver's hamstring, he made it clear Wednesday that it had more to do with Sherfield's emergence and Aiyuk's inconsistent practice time due to his injury.
“Anytime you do have a setback with a hamstring and you have a guy behind you playing as well as Trent’s played, I know Trent wasn’t a first-round draft pick, so that might not be as obvious with the talent level, but he’s been a hell of a football player since he’s been here,” Shanahan said. “Aiyuk’s been a little inconsistent because he’s been in and out with his injury. And that’s what we felt was the best chance for us last week. Aiyuk’s still got a chance to get that spot up and not rotate as much, Trent just doesn’t make that very easy. So, these three days are important in practice, how we balance out our game plan, how we balance out our routes. And I’m happy with Aiyuk. It’s nothing against Aiyuk. I’m just also happy with Trent too. And I think both of them can continue to get better.”
It's a good thing that the 49ers are confident in Sherfield's abilities as a No. 2 receiver and don't have to trot out the likes of Kevin White or Dante Pettis should Samuel or Aiyuk get injured.
For now, there is no reason to panic. Depth is a good thing, and if Sherfield continues to produce it just gives the 49ers' offense another reliable weapon. But if Sherfield's play tails off and Aiyuk still is seeing his snap count cut then it will be time to jam on the panic button.
He's not Dante Pettis
Whenever you draft someone in the top-50 picks in the NFL draft, you better hit. When you trade up to draft someone in that range, you better be damn sure you're getting a good one.
The 49ers flat whiffed on Dante Pettis. There's no sugar-coating it. The Washington product isn't a starting-caliber NFL wide receiver and that mistake likely became clear to Shanahan early on in Pettis' 49ers career.
Shanahan gave Pettis, who had a solid finish to his rookie season, every opportunity to prove he belonged on the field. During the 2019 season, Pettis averaged 46 snaps per game between Week 2 and Week 6, but he caught only eight balls for 76 yards during that span. His playing time began to dwindle and the 49es made Pettis inactive for Super Bowl LIV.
"He’s had his opportunities. The more he doesn’t take advantage of his opportunities, the less opportunities he gets. He did get a couple last night because of injury and I didn’t think he made them," Shanahan said of Pettis during the 2019 season.
During his two-plus seasons with the 49ers, Pettis caught 38 passes for 576 yards and seven touchdowns, with the bulk of that coming during the back end of his rookie season.
Pettis couldn't cut it in the 49ers' offense and it's doubtful he'll have staying power with the New York Giants.
Brandon Aiyuk is not that. The 25th overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft was electric during his rookie season, catching 60 passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns while playing mainly with Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard. Aiyuk's talent is undeniable. Everyone from Jerry Rice to Faithful Jerry at home on the couch can see Aiyuk has starting-caliber NFL talent.
But talent can only get you so far which leads us to ...
Shanahan wants more from Aiyuk
On Wednesday, Shanahan was asked if he thought Aiyuk had taken his foot off the gas following a strong rookie season.
The 49ers head coach started his answer with "Not totally" before going into a long explanation about the 49ers' faith in Sherfield which I highlighted above.
But he didn't say no.
Aiyuk had a great opening week of training camp but leveled off before suffering the mild hamstring strain.
What's become clear is that Aiyuk practicing in full likely won't be enough for him to stop splitting snaps with Sherfield. "Textbook Trent" as Sanu calls him runs his routes with precision and has made an impression on the 49ers' staff as he did during his time with the Arizona Cardinals. A wide receiver known for his special teams play, Sherfield clearly does everything he can to show he belongs and he won't just hand Aiyuk back his starting role.
Shanahan is challenging the guy he drafted to eventually e his No. 1 receiver. The guess is that Shanahan hopes this adversity can trigger Aiyuk to elevate his game to the next level. Not just on Sundays, but also in practice where Sherfield does everything right and has gained the trust of Shanahan and the QBs.
“If he wants to be out there every single play, he’s got to be a lot better than the guy behind him,” Shanahan said of Aiyuk.
Aiyuk's talent and effort aren't the issue. Not on Sundays. But Shanahan wants to see more from his star receiver during the week, and the hope is that Aiyuk will respond to the challenge and the 49ers will be better for it.
Aiyuk's situation will be closely monitored Sunday when the 49ers visit the Philadelphia Eagles and in Week 3 when they welcome the Green Bay Packers to Levi's Stadium.
If Aiyuk's snaps don't start to tick up by then it might be time to panic. But for now, the 49ers are in a good spot at the receiver position and Shanahan is offering a challenge to a young receiver who many believe can be one of the best in the NFL.