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Can Aiyuk exceed Samuel's rookie year stats with 49ers?

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Brandon Aiyuk did not look like a rookie who was stepping on the practice field with his teammates for the first time when training camp opened.

Prior to his departure from the practice field one week ago due to a left hamstring injury, Aiyuk looked like a seasoned veteran despite the cancellation of the team's offseason program this spring.

Through one week of camp, Aiyuk established himself as a favorite among the 49ers quarterbacks, including Jimmy Garoppolo. He caught more passes during 11-on-11 drills than any 49ers rookie receiver in recent memory.

To the untrained eye, he appeared to be much further along than even Deebo Samuel of a year ago.

Samuel, who remains on the non-football injury list after June surgery to repair a broken foot, had an outstanding rookie season in 2019 with 57 receptions for 802 yards and three touchdowns. He added 159 yards and three touchdowns rushing on 14 attempts.

In the postseason, Samuel had 10 catches for 127 yards receiving, and 102 yards on six rushing attempts.

Aiyuk’s promising practices raises the question: Can he surpass this season what Samuel did as a rookie?

Certainly, Aiyuk’s hamstring injury is a setback that will have some impact on his season even if he is 100-percent healthy for the 49ers’ regular-season opener on Sunday, Sept. 13, against the Arizona Cardinals at Levi’s Stadium.

But coach Kyle Shanahan isn't altogether concerned because of what he witnessed from Aiyuk before the injury.

“If Aiyuk didn’t come in the way he did come in, he’d be screwed,” Shanahan said. “That’s what’s been cool about him. He’s given himself a chance to overcome something like this.”

 

All indications are that Shanahan had Aiyuk rated a notch below CeeDee Lamb as the No. 2 receiver in the 2020 draft class. The 49ers traded up six spots to select him at No. 25 overall.

Aiyuk's willingness to put in all the work has set himself up to be a big part of the 49ers’ offense this season. But unlike last season when Samuel emerged on the scene, Garoppolo and the 49ers’ offense have a lot more options. That is why Aiyuk’s numbers probably will not approach what Samuel accomplished last season.

After all, Samuel was one of the main weapons in the 49ers’ offensive arsenal because there weren’t a whole lot of other options. Tight end George Kittle, of course, was the team’s best player. Emmanuel Sanders arrived on the scene at the midpoint of the season.

So the 49ers had no other choice but to force-feed Samuel.

This season, Aiyuk is just one option along with Kittle and Samuel. (The 49ers continue to be hopeful that Samuel will be cleared for the season opener.)

But it is reasonable to expect a high volume of passes landing in the hands of slot receiver Trent Taylor, reliable receiver Kendrick Bourne and third-down back Jerick McKinnon, too.

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The 49ers have more options at wide receiver for Shanahan to shuttle in and out of the lineup. Last season, the team had confidence in only Sanders, Samuel and Bourne. This season, the club can spread the ball around with a lot more freedom.

The 49ers did not intend for Samuel to play as much as he did a year ago. He made a lot of mistakes, but the 49ers had no choice other but to continue to play him a lot and have him learn on the job.

Aiyuk might be further along than Samuel was at this time a year ago, but because of a better cast around him, it probably will not show up on the stat sheet.