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Best route of Aiyuk's 49ers career shows how much he has improved

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SANTA CLARA -- Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk’s improvement from his rookie season has been obvious to everyone around the 49ers.

But it has not been apparent on the stat sheet.

“(I’m) getting better, definitely getting better,” Aiyuk said Friday. “I feel like I’ve come a long way from where I was at this point last year.”

That might come as a surprise to fantasy football owners.

After all, Aiyuk caught 60 passes for 748 yards and five touchdowns as a rookie in 12 games. The 49ers leaned on Aiyuk, while Deebo Samuel and George Kittle missed large portions of the 2020 season due to injuries.

Through 11 games this season, Aiyuk has 32 receptions for 432 yards and three touchdowns.

“He’s better in the run game, better in the pass game,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “He’s much more consistent, and he’s getting better each week — going on for four or five weeks in a row.

“There are plenty of times that stats will fool you, especially when guy’s stats are dependent on other people a lot. We got a lot more confidence in him than we did last year.”

Shanahan has even more faith in Aiyuk after seeing how he handled a difficult situation late in the first half of the 49ers’ 34-26 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

The 49ers were faced with a third-and-11 play from the Minnesota 30-yard line with :30 remaining in the first half. Aiyuk ran an in-breaking route against a defense that was set up to defend such a play.

 

“I thought that was the best route he’s had since he’s been here,” Shanahan said of the way Aiyuk attacked the Vikings' coverage.

Aiyuk subtly threatened the outside of the cornerback lined up in front of him, which enabled him to create enough separation in the middle of the field for quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to deliver the pass before the linebacker could make a play on the ball.

Aiyuk made the catch, then aggressively turned up the field for a 24-yard gain. On the next play, Garoppolo found Jauan Jennings for a 3-yard touchdown pass.

Aiyuk said he had faced the same defense with the same play design at other points in his young NFL career. He learned from those situations.

“I ran it differently, and it didn’t end up the way we wanted it to,” he said of previous plays that failed.

“Having stuff goes wrong sometimes is the best thing that can happen, because when stuff goes wrong you learn from it and it sticks awhile. I’ve had that rep before and it was awesome to get that rep again and do it the right way.”

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Aiyuk got off to a slow start this season, but he is coming on strong over the past four games with 19 catches for 291 yards and two touchdowns.

“I feel I came in here last year and played a lot off natural ability and talent and didn’t have a full understanding of what was going on, on offense or defense,” Aiyuk said. “So I think that’s where the biggest improvement came from.”

Shanahan did not hesitate when asked if Aiyuk is currently better than a year ago.

“Yeah,” Shanahan answered, “and I don’t even think it’s close. He’s a much better player.”

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