The Path to a WR1 Fantasy Football Season: Brandon Aiyuk
Editor’s Note: This profile is part of our annual Path to a Fantasy WR1 Season series. For our methodology and an outline of the process, make sure you read the 2021 Path to WR1 Series Primer.
The San Francisco 49ers had high expectations heading into 2020 after falling just short of a Super Bowl championship the prior season. Nothing went as planned as the team dealt with a litany of injuries and finished the season with a disappointing 6-10 record. One bright spot, however, was the mid-season emergence of Brandon Aiyuk as one of the most exciting playmakers in the NFL. He ended up as the fantasy WR33 in 2020, let’s see what it will take for him to make the jump to the elite WR1 tier in 2021.
The 49ers made a splash by trading up to draft Aiyuk number 25 overall in the 2020 NFL draft. In post-draft interviews, general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan professed their love for Aiyuk. They claimed to have him rated dead-even with CeeDee Lamb in the pre-draft process. They even considered selecting with their earlier first-round pick.
His rookie campaign started slowly as he missed Week 1 with a hamstring injury. He had a bit of a breakout in Week 3, catching eight passes for 70 yards and adding a 19-yard touchdown run against the Giants to finish as WR12 on the week. He was then relatively quiet for three weeks.
Then Week 7 hit.
From Weeks 7-15 Aiyuk averaged 17.1 fantasy points/game. The only receivers to average more fantasy points during that stretch were Tryeek Hill and Davante Adams. Over these nine weeks, Aiyuk played just six games due to the bye week and two non-consecutive weeks on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but his 17-game pace during that time was a ridiculous 128 receptions, 1,609 yards, and 11 touchdowns.
He flamed out in Week 16 when third-string quarterback C.J. Beathard had to step in to run the offense and only completed 13 passes. He also suffered a high ankle sprain that kept him sidelined for Week 17.
The Path for 2021
Things are going to look a lot different for the 49ers offense in 2021. For starters, San Francisco traded all the way up to the number three spot in the draft to select Trey Lance. Whether it’s Lance or incumbent Jimmy Garoppolo starting at quarterback, it will be an upgrade over Nick Mullens and C.J. Beathard, who combined to start ten games for the Niners in 2020. George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, who each missed roughly half of the season in 2020, will also be starting healthy.
San Francisco projects to be a powerful offense in 2021, so let’s explore how it could produce a WR1 season for Brandon Aiyuk.
Targets and Target Share
Aiyuk led the 49ers with 96 targets, which was eighth-most among last year’s stellar rookie class. He led all rookies on a per-game basis with 8.0 targets/game, slightly ahead of Justin Jefferson’s 7.8 targets/game. He was certainly the number one receiving option on his team for the majority of 2020.
The San Francisco target distribution for 2021 is a big unknown. Their three most prominent pass-catchers, Aiyuk, Samuel, and Kittle, only played three full games together in 2020. Over that three-game stretch, Kittle led the group in targets (25), with Deebo (19), and Aiyuk (16) second and third respectively. When you pro-rate their target shares to account for games missed it looks a little different. Kittle (24.0%) still leads, but Aiyuk (22.9%) is much closer and Deebo (17.6%) is significantly lower.
Kittle is an elite tight end and will see a significant target share when healthy, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see Aiyuk hang with Kittle when it comes to targets. He plays the “x receiver” for San Francisco, which is historically the target hog in Kyle Shanahan-led offenses. Examples of target hog “x receivers” from Shanahan’s former coaching stops include Andre Johnson (171), Pierre Garcon (181), and Julio Jones (203!). It isn’t fair to directly compare these players to Aiyuk and Shanahan’s offense continues to evolve, but it shows that he’s perfectly comfortable hyper-targeting an outside receiver. Aiyuk, the receiver they traded up to get in 2020, certainly fits the profile.
Aiyuk’s 748 receiving yards as a rookie don’t pop off the screen, but his 62.3 yards/game put him at nearly 1,000 yards over 16 games and over that threshold in the NFL’s new 17-game format.
He also lost some additional yardage to the somewhat fluky way he scored his touchdowns. All five of them were thrown within the five-yard line. While the usage near the end-zone is a good thing, those short receptions bring down his overall yardage. His highlight-reel touchdown against Philadelphia in Week 4 went down as a rush because the pass from Nick Mullens was ruled a backward lateral, but it displays his ability to rack up yardage after the catch as well.
Eagle Fans: Fly Eagles Fly! Brandon Aiyuk: #FTTB #nfl pic.twitter.com/82Oba1VblZ
— Niners_Nation (@N9ners_Nation) October 5, 2020
His 12.47 yards/receptions put him among some elite names on the 2020 leaderboard. Other receivers in that range include Adam Thielen (12.50), Allen Robinson (12.25), DeAndre Hopkins (12.23), Amari Cooper (12.11), and Stefon Diggs (12.09). All of these receivers have finished as WR1s recently, some of them multiple times, There’s no reason Aiyuk can’t join them if his targets increase accordingly.
He may not lead his own team in receiving touchdowns thanks to George Kittle, but his usage as a rusher makes him a favorite to lead the Niners in total touchdowns. As I hinted at earlier, he was also highly utilized in the red zone. He led San Francisco with 14 targets inside the 20-yard line and eight inside the 5-yard line.
He ended his rookie campaign with seven total touchdowns, five through the air, and two on the ground, in just 12 games. That puts him on a 17-game pace for 9.9 touchdowns. We know touchdowns are tough to predict but Aiyuk can absolutely find the end-zone double-digit times in 2021.
WR1 Probability for 2021: Unlikely (10-24%)
Once again I took to Twitter to poll the fantasy football community’s opinion.
Digging into another "Path to a WR1 Season" article for @TheFFBallers What chance do YOU give Brandon Aiyuk to finish as a WR1 in 2021?
— Aaron Larson (@aalarson) June 27, 2021
The community soundly decided on the “unlikely” option, which given the percentages is tough to argue. After researching for this article I find myself leaning more towards the “maybe” option and would personally put the chance around 30%.
The 2021 San Francisco 49ers are going to look a lot different than the 2020 version. Aiyuk’s success will be heavily connected to the starting quarterback, whether that’s Jimmy Garoppolo, Trey Lance, or some combination of the two. Aiyuk has the physical traits and plays in an offensive scheme that gives him the potential to make the leap into WR1 territory if everything clicks. He will certainly be a target of mine in fantasy drafts this season.