Why 49ers' Brandon Aiyuk could struggle getting targets in rookie year

Why 49ers' Brandon Aiyuk could struggle getting targets in rookie year

Going into the 2020 NFL Draft, many experts gave the 49ers either CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy or Henry Ruggs in their mock draft. Kyle Shanahan certainly was impressed by Lamb, but another receiver caught his eye: Arizona State's Brandon Aiyuk. 

The 49ers traded up in the first round of the draft to take Aiyuk at No. 25 overall, but they seriously contemplated taking the wideout as high as No. 13 when they originally were on the clock with their top pick in the first round. Coach Kyle Shanahan loved what he saw from Aiyuk on tape, and a first-round pick comes with high expectations. 

But could Aiyuk struggle to find targets from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo as a rookie? That very well could happen, especially early on. 

Pro Football Focus ranked 10 rookie receivers' situations -- not talent -- for the 2020 season and Aiyuk was at the very bottom. Again, this doesn't have to do with the ASU product's talent. It more has to do with receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle.

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"Those two accounted for just over 40 percent of the 49ers' targets in 2019 and should only rise with Samuel in Year 2," PFF's Michael Renner wrote. "Aiyuk’s limited route tree at Arizona State could come into play, too, as the 49ers' offense doesn’t feature a ton of simplistic routes.

"In fact, their receivers had the fewest yards (529) of any group on screens, hitches, go’s, and crossers last year."

In Herm Edwards' college offense, Aiyuk thrived taking screens to the house. He had the eighth-most screen yards in the country last season. 

Shanahan has an incredibly complex offense. There always are moving parts and his play calls can sound like another language. Aiyuk is at an unprecedented disadvantage being away from the field right now due to the coronavirus and not learning the offense on the go. 

And then there's the 49ers' logjam in the receivers room. Kittle once again will be Garoppolo's top target, however, there's some serious competition at receiver.

Samuel, who has offered a helping hand to Aiyuk, could turn into a star in his second pro season and should demand a boatload of targets this year. Kendrick Bourne continues to defy the odds and led the 49ers in touchdown receptions last year, general manager John Lynch still has high hope for Dante Pettis and the return of two injured players -- Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd -- could be huge keys to this offenses success.

[RELATED: These are the 49ers' top five future contract conundrums]

Aiyuk certainly is confident in himself and it helps having Samuel wanting to lead the way. Samuel should know firsthand how tough this offense is, though. His numbers took off in the second half of his rookie year after a bit of a slow start. 

Can Aiyuk get off the ground running? He has the talent, but also must be able to clear some tough hurdles and push some more experienced players to the side.

How Colton McKivitz earned 49ers' prized 'gold helmet' before NFL draft

How Colton McKivitz earned 49ers' prized 'gold helmet' before NFL draft

When general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan took over the 49ers in 2017, they established an ideal set of criteria for potential draft-eligible prospects. An array of attributes are evaluated, from off-the-field character to football IQ.

49ers vice president of player personnel Adam Peters recently told The Athletic's Matt Barrows that fifth-round pick Colton McKivitz was one of around 15 potential draftees the team deemed worthy of this "gold helmet" designation.

“Gold helmet is not something we give out a lot,” Peters told Barrows. “The person really has to be exemplary, really has to stand out.”

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McKivitz is a unique personality to say the least, as his father became famous around the West Virginia campus for wearing various animal skins as hats at every Mountaineer game.

But he also was a National Honor Society recipient and started 47 of 50 games in his collegiate career, even earning Big 12 Co-Offensive Lineman of the Year honors in 2019.

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McKivitz has an aggressive reputation on the field, but his former offensive line coach and family friend says the 49ers couldn't be getting a better all-around person.

“You’re not going to find a better human being as far as moral conduct is concerned,” Brion Schiappa said. “He will never embarrass the 49ers. Ever.”

San Francisco dealt with injuries across the offensive line in 2019, and will be counting on McKivitz's versatility in 2020 for depth.

49ers' George Kittle deserves 'a special contract,' agent believes

49ers' George Kittle deserves 'a special contract,' agent believes

After the best three-season opening for a tight end in NFL history, George Kittle is eligible to receive a new contract from the 49ers before the 2020 season.

It would appear both sides should prioritize a fair contract before the club is allowed to get on the field again. The biggest issue is figuring out what is fair pay for someone who does it all -- but does it at a position that ranks behind only running backs on the NFL pay scale.

“Right now, there is not a comp for George,” Kittle's agent, Jack Bechta, said on the 49ers Insider Podcast. “He’s unique. He’s a unicorn. He’s one of a kind.”

Kittle, a fifth-round draft pick from Iowa in 2017, has more receiving yards than any tight end through three seasons in NFL history. He is the only tight end in 49ers history with a 1,000-yard season – and he has done it in back-to-back years. He set the league record for tight ends in 2018 with 1,377 yards receiving.

He was named first-team All-Pro in 2019 after catching 85 passes for 1,053 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games.

Moreover, Kittle is a dominant blocker in the run game.

“George is a very special player. He needs a special contract,” Bechta said. “And those things take time for both sides. It’s a nice problem for everybody to have.

“At the end of the day, I trust the Niners will do the right thing and take good care of George, as they should. But I trust the process. I won’t comment where we’re at, or numbers or anything like that. But hopefully it gets done.”

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Hunter Henry is scheduled to be the highest paid tight end in the league this season at $10.6 million after the Los Angeles Chargers designated him as their franchise player. Austin Hooper became the league’s top-paid tight end on a multi-year contract when the Cleveland Browns signed him as a free agent to a four-year deal that averages $10.5 million annually.

[RELATEDLynch expects Kittle contract extension 'in due time']

Meanwhile, Kittle is scheduled to make $2.133 million this season through the league’s proven performance escalator. Clearly, he is underpaid. But the 49ers have him under contract for the upcoming season.

“There are smart people at the Niners,” Bechta said. “They’ll figure it out. They love George, and George loves them. And hopefully it’ll all work out.”