Brandon Aiyuk is an Explosive Talent But Brings a Difficult Evaluation
Note: Since I no longer have access to the necessary college film to chart prospects and their Reception Perception samples, I’ll be taking RP data from the NFL level and using it to frame what we can expect from these incoming rookies and their best role as pro receivers. You can get access to Reception Perception data on the Top 50 NFL receivers in the 2020 Ultimate Draft Kit.
The 2020 NFL Draft is creeping ever closer. Right around this time every year, the fog on the mirror starts to get wiped away ever so slightly. It helps prepare us for what might actually happen when Round 1 kicks off Thursday night.
When I saw NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah put Arizona State wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk as his WR5 in this year’s class, I saw that as a surprise. The explosive receiver is starting to creep into other first-round mocks, as well. This should cause us to wonder if he could end up sneaking into Round 1. We can guess the NFL likes him.
Brandon Aiyuk enters the NFL after two seasons at Arizona State. After a modest Junior campaign, he exploded as a big-play asset in 2019. He averaged over 18 yards per catch and scored eight times.
The best part of Aiyuk’s game is his ability to run after the catch. He racked up 709 yards post-reception in 2019, per Sports Info Solutions. Aiyuk’s running back background and prowess as a return man show up in this area of his wide receiver game all the time.
Despite having just one strong season at a major school, Aiyuk seems to be a favorite of several big-time draft analysts, which means the NFL likely values him quite high. Some believe he will be a first-round pick. Therefore, getting a good read on his skills as a player is crucial for those of use on the outside.
Brandon Aiyuk is the toughest evaluation among wide receivers set to go off the board in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft.
The ASU star displayed some advanced route running concepts on film. He has excellent footwork on the curl route and can chop inside on digs with ease. The natural explosiveness he brings to the table combined with good footwork makes him a natural fit on in-breaking patterns.
While the overall footwork or pattern of his routes was strong, I definitely found myself thinking, “right idea, bad timing.” It could just be an inexperience problem but there were times Aiyuk dropped his hips too early, didn’t take enough steps on the stem or broke a second too early. A good wide receiver coach could work this out of him. Nevertheless, it might frustrate a demanding quarterback.
Jerry Jeudy is the cream of the crop when it comes to overall route-running in this class. That said, you can argue Aiyuk is the best deception artist in the 2020 crop.
Aiyuk consistently earns leverage against corners before revealing his true intentions. He gets them to open up their hips the wrong way and then in second, breaks the direction he’s heading. The stop-and-stutter move he unleashes on go routes regularly fool his opponent into thinking a curl is coming. In the second they waste trying to jump that route, they’ve already lost.
This not only shows his intelligence as a route runner, but it also reveals plenty of potential as an NFL deep threat for this player. You can have all the speed you want but if you don’t show some of those traits like Aiyuk does, you’re not winning the vertical game in the pros.
Aiyuk also does not mind contact when it comes his way in the deep game. When he meets the defensive back down the field and executes that stutter before hitting the post or go and they give him a jab, he doesn’t get derailed.
However, that “meets the defensive back” brings us to the biggest worry. So many, like an alarming amount of his big plays come against off-man coverage. When you see the limited reps he has against a stong press corner who can get him in tight coverage, the results aren’t great. Frankly, I just have no idea how he will perform against press in the NFL. He has some skills to work around it but at the very least, it’s going to provide a learning curve to start his career.
It’s this part of his game that makes him such a challenging evaluation because his reps against off-man and zone are great. And he’s so good after the catch. You just have to hope a smart coach can work around the release issues, especially early in his career.
With his strong hands and pristine ability after the catch, Brandon Aiyuk will draw a ton of comparisons to players like D.J. Moore, Golden Tate, and Deebo Samuel. Several of my Twitter followers suggested those as comparisons.
Such players would also make sense from a deployment perspective. Receivers of that archetype have thrived with coaching staffs who overlook holes in their game at the line of scrimmage and just find ways to get the ball in their hands. Just like Aiyuk needs to, they typically avoid press coverage too. Aiyuk can the type of playmaker where it’s worth the adjustment.
The one difference I see between Aiyuk and the three aforementioned players is his potential in the deep game. His comfort with contact and deceptive route running is so strong, he should have a place as a vertical player.
Aiyuk needs to be somewhere in the middle. He can play as that gadget/slot hybrid but his team needs to find a way to use him outside as a downfield threat without exposing him to too much press.
When you look in the Reception Perception archives (2014 to 2019) for a role, you can find some examples of both types of players.
(Wide receivers who saw press on 25 percent or fewer of their routes, sorted by the highest rate of man coverage faced)
There’s a good collection of mostly slot receivers here: the JuJu Smith-Schuster, Adam Thielen and Randall Cobb groups. They avoided press mostly because of their interior alignment prior to the snap. However, the players who caught my attention were Tyler Lockett, Mike Wallace, T.Y. Hilton and Kenny Stills.
The latter trio was primarily outside playmakers during their years charted. However, they came in on the lower press coverage range because they proved early in their careers they needed to be respected as downfield threats. Teams decided they needed to play their corners off them, which allows this type of receiver to feast on underneath and intermediate routes just like Aiyuk did in college.
One player who just missed this filter but looks like a good dual usage comparison to me is Tyrell Williams.
Williams was best known for his ability to thrive in the open field after the catch following a crossing route. Of course, there’s no denying he could get over the top, as well. Those are the two ways we should see Aiyuk used to take advantage of his current strengths as he continues to refine his release work.
Brandon Aiyuk has plenty of strong quality. His blistering ability to create after the catch and strong hands will earn him plenty of praise. We also shouldn’t discount his excellent route execution when it comes to all matters of deception. Even if he needs a ton of work to become a good warrior against press coverage, his advanced degree in trickery is a strong signal.
All we really need to hope for is that Aiyuk lands with a team that already boasts strong receivers so they can be flexible with this incoming rookie. The Saints immediately came to mind. With a true No. 1 in Michael Thomas and the newly added Emmanuel Sanders, they’re perfect. Both those veterans have inside/outside flexibility and will demand press coverage from a top corner on the majority of plays. That will leave Aiyuk to feast on weaker defenders in more off-man looks.
A landing spot like this might not lead to immediate fantasy juice but it will find him a better path to long-term growth. Sanders played with Deebo Samuel last year who really hit his stride late in the season. Maybe he helps free up space for another rookie in need this coming season.