In the 2020 draft class, the San Francisco 49ers addressed what they viewed as a glaring hole. In 2019, they had thrown on only forty-nine percent of their offensive plays (478 attempts in 976 plays). Despite getting to the Super Bowl and losing to the Chiefs 31-20, it was apparent that the team would need more offensive playmakers than what they currently had to take that final step. They selected WR Brandon Aiyuk with the 25th overall pick from Arizona State to fill this need. Other than his interception percentage (2.7 percent), Jimmy Garoppolo had been exceedingly efficient in 2019. He was 4th in the league in completion percentage (69.1 percent), third in yards per attempt (8.3 yards per attempt), and 7th in touchdown percentage(5.7 percent). Unfortunately, his target tree was extremely limited. TE George Kittle had 107 targets (22.4 percent target share), and rookie WR Deebo Samuel had 83 (17.3 percent target share). No one else had more than an 11 percent share, with Emmanuel Sanders (53 targets) and Kendrick Bourne (40 targets) leading the way. Sanders had been signed to a one-year contract and would leave for the Saints during free agency.
As we mentioned in the Blake Jarwin piece listed Here, an opportunity is one-half of what it takes to be a legitimate breakout candidate. With Sanders gone, there was going to be ample opportunity for Aiyuk to have targets. That being said, he really struggled to start the season (as many rookies do). Through five games, he only had 14 receptions (on 25 targets) for 165 yards and one touchdown. At the same time, Garoppolo was slightly less efficient compared to 2019. Through those first five games, he had completed 83 of 124 pass attempts (67 percent completion rate) for 1012 yards (8.16 yards per attempt) and 7 TD’s (5.6 percent touchdown rate).
In week 6, Garoppolo and Aiyuk finally combined for a good game, with Aiyuk having six catches for 115 yards. In week seven at the Seahawks, Garoppolo re-aggravated an ankle injury suffered earlier in the season and would not return for the majority of the year. The backup, Nick Mullens, also hooked up successfully with the rookie as Aiyuk wound up securing eight catches(on ten targets) for 91 yards and a TD.
Despite missing four games over the course of the rest of the season due to Covid, Aiyuk would post the final stat line of 60 catches (on 96 targets) for 748 yards and five touchdowns. In the five games that he was able to play from week eight on, Aiyuk recorded 32 receptions (on 51 targets) for 377 yards and four TDs. This performance would allow Aiyuk to average 18.74 fantasy points per game. Per FantasyPros.Com, Devante Adams finished with the highest seasonal average per game amongst wide receivers at 17.4, while Aiyuk finished 15th (at 10.4), aided by this hot streak.
As proven by Aiyuk’s average fantasy points in 2020, talent (the second part of being a breakout player) is there. The opportunity was there in 2020, but will it be in 2021? Naysayers will discuss the fact that both Samuel and Kittle were out with injury during much of the peak of Aiyuk’s production, but I am here to debunk that concept.
One thing all fantasy football players will agree on is that when Kittle is healthy, he will get his target share. Over the last three years, Kittle has had at least eight targets in 23 out of the 39 games he has played (with several others just under the threshold). With Kittle definitely being involved, there are two realistic scenarios: 1) increased pass to run ratio (2019 was an outlier); and 2) even if the run/pass ratio is similar to 2019, Aiyuk will get more targets than Samuel. Both lead to increased opportunities for the talented Ayuik. To me, a four-year sample size is large enough to gauge a team’s intentions regarding run/pass ratio. The last four years have looked as follows per ProFootballReference.Com
Total Plays. Runs Passes. Pass Pct
2020 1007 437 570 57
2019 976 498 478 49
2018 955 423 532 55.7
2017 1015 408 607 59.8
Based on this information, it appears that 2019 was certainly not the norm. If one takes the average number of plays (988) over the last four years and extrapolates it to 17 games, the 49ers would run 1050 plays in 2021. At a conservative number of 55 percent passing plays, there would be 577 pass attempts. The other receivers outside of Samuel and Ayuik currently listed on the depth chart are: 1) Mohamed Sanu; 2) Richie James; 3) Jalen Hurd; and 4) Trent Sherfield. In 2020, there were 103 total targets to RBs (an 18.5 percent target share). Even if Kittle gets a 25 percent target share (142 targets), there should be plenty of available work for both Aiyuk and Samuel.
In a worst case scenario, like 2019, it would be very much up for debate as to whether Samuel or Aiyuk would get more targets. Aiyuk played in only 12 games last year, while Samuel played 7. In the six games that they played together, Aiyuk out targeted Samuel 47-31. Samuel only had 44 targets on the season and 13 of those in the one game he played without Aiyuk. Out of 22 career games, Samuel has only had three games with more than eight targets. In just 12 career games, Aiyuk has had five games with more than eight.
The 49ers selected QB Trey Lance (North Dakota State) with the third overall pick in this year’s draft. At the writing of this article, the 49ERS have supposedly been creating packages to utilize Lance’s unique abilities. In redraft leagues, Aiyuk’s stats should be very similar, regardless of who starts at QB. In dynasty, Aiyuk has even more value with the upside of Lance.
Per FantasyPros.Com, Aiyuk has the 23rd highest PPR ADP amongst WRs. In looking at the list, there are at least five or more receivers that I would rank Aiyuk ahead of. With both the talent and opportunity, Aiyuk will exceed his ADP and finish in the top 18 in the end of year results.