Upon the opening of training camp in the summer, Brandon Aiyuk clearly was the best 49ers wide receiver on the practice field.
Each of the 49ers quarterbacks targeted him repeatedly. He got open. He made catches -- a lot of catches.
What made Aiyuk’s showings even more impressive was the fact he did not have an ordinary rookie offseason because practices and in-person meetings were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Aiyuk immediately stepped on the field in August and looked as if he already had the NFL game and Kyle Shanahan’s playbook figured out.
“It may have looked like that from the sideline or wherever, but that was definitely not the case,” Aiyuk said. “There was a lot going on internally that we knew about that had to be fixed.”
Aiyuk was never broken, but all the parts have been fine-tuned and are firing in sync over the second half of the season.
Not only is Aiyuk the 49ers’ best wide receiver, he could be the team’s offensive MVP despite missing three games due to a hamstring injury that kept him out of the season opener and two stints on the reserve/COVID-19 list.
Aiyuk said things really clicked for him after his return to the team on Dec. 2 after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Nov. 20. He pinpointed that as the time when the game started to slow down and his game sped up.
“I’d say just recently that happened,” Aiyuk said.
“I’d say up until a few weeks ago, coming back from my little COVID break, was when things really started to slow down on the field and from the playbook and being able to just go out there and focus on the defenses, coverage and who I’m playing against instead of having to worry about what my assignment is.”
Aiyuk already has more receptions as a rookie than any other wide receiver in 49ers history. He enters the 49ers’ Week 16 game against the Arizona Cardinals with 59 catches for 733 yards and five touchdowns.
He will need 194 yards in his final two games to reach Jerry Rice’s franchise rookie record of 927 yards.
Aiyuk is averaging 66.6 yards receiving per game (94.7 yards per game in his past six games). Rice averaged 57.9 yards per game in 1985, his first season in the NFL.