SANTA CLARA, Calif. — In the early days of training camp for the San Francisco 49ers, linebacker Fred Warner made himself impossible to miss. No matter who had the ball, Warner always seemed to be around, ready to hit it, talk trash, or both.
That was particularly true for wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk. Warner’s constant singing left Aiyuk, just two days after camp, describing Warner as “annoying” and “irritating”. However, there was a method to Warner’s madness.
“Specifically with Brandon, I chose him out,” Warner said. “I specifically said I think he’s ready to take the next step to play at that elite level. And ever since he got here, I’ve been after him a little bit, going around the locker room and around the building. Because I know how much he has in him and I know if I scold him a little bit, he’ll start to get sick and tired of it and start to fend for himself… I’m just trying to get the best of him, and that’s it.”
The immediate return of Warner’s focus was a full-scale fight at practice on August 2, a fight that featured two matchups between Warner and Aiyuk, including one in which the pair squared off as if it were real boxing. play.
The long-term consequences could be far more significant for both Aiyuk and the team.
Nearly two weeks out of camp, Aiyuk has been the team’s most consistent offensive player. That’s no small feat in a star-studded unit that includes tight end George Kittle, wide receiver Deebo Samuel and left tackle Trent Williams. The only argument seems to be whether Aiyuk has been the best performer on the pitch, regardless of position.
“He’s having an outstanding camp,” free safety Jimmie Ward said. “I feel like he’s having the best camp of anybody on the team, offense and defense. He’s good, plus [end Nick] Bosa. … But BA is taking his game to another level. It’s crazy.”
In an alternate universe, Aiyuk’s breakout season would have come last season. For a couple of weeks into training camp in 2021, Aiyuk had been consistently producing, though not at the level he is in this one. That turned out to be a summer mirage, as Aiyuk’s game dwindled and a hamstring injury near the end of camp pushed him down the depth chart.
Kyle Shanahan didn’t see the growth he expected from Aiyuk after a promising rookie season. As a former catcher at Duke and the University of Texas, Shanahan holds receivers to a particularly high standard. Running routes on offense from him requires a combination of precision, violence and stamina that is hard for young wide receivers to comprehend.
Because Aiyuk, a first-round pick in 2020, entered the league in the midst of a pandemic, he didn’t get a chance to learn those things during a normal offseason before his first two seasons.
That’s why, despite posting 60 receptions for 748 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games as a rookie, Aiyuk wasn’t even starting Year 2. Through the first six games of last season, Aiyuk only had nine receptions for 96. yards and a touchdown while being targeted 16 times. Aiyuk ran just 23.7 routes per game, and even when he was attacked, he was rarely open, creating an average of 1.72 yards of separation by the time passes came, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
“I think everyone knows how it started last year,” Shanahan said. “He was a little behind where I wanted him to be, and he took the challenge and handled it like a man and got a lot better and just got to work.”
From Week 8 through the NFC Championship Game, Aiyuk was targeted more than any Niners pass catcher (83), posting 56 receptions for 865 yards at an average of 15.5 yards per reception. The average separation from him when he points jumped to 3.29 yards.
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Aiyuk and 49ers quarterback Trey Lance worked out together for the second straight offseason in Southern California. Lance jokes that Aiyuk used to give him dirty looks and not say much in 2021, but Lance realized that this is how Aiyuk likes to operate when he’s working.
This year, Lance and Aiyuk lived together and shaped their training schedule to mimic boot camp with three-day block sessions around a day off. They emphasized something different every day, whether it was fast passing, game action or deep balls. When the workouts were over, the couple would retire to the house, sit around the campfire and spend time getting to know each other.
They even had lunch with Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, who someday have off-season homes near San Diego. As Aiyuk and Lance set off to run up a hill, Lynch joined them before they headed to the beach. The chemistry between the pair is already evident on the field, lending additional credence to the belief that Aiyuk could emerge as Lance’s favorite target when the games begin.
“I give Brandon credit,” Lance said. “That’s the job he did. I’ve been saying it since this spring, the summer was locked into this offseason. I think he had a goal to break away and become a different player. And he has, man. … He’s making some really big plays and he’s breaking up.”
About halfway through preseason, Shanahan sees a player who rushes off the ball, sprinting on every play, using his hips and feet to create separation and attacking the ball with his hands when it’s in the air. Defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans notes Aiyuk’s improved ability to win contested catches even when he’s well covered.
Perhaps most importantly, Aiyuk has proven capable of doing all of those things every day, a requirement in a camp that is as much a test of will as it is of soccer skill. He has done it all while putting up with Warner, and has made what happened early last season a distant memory.
“You have to go through things to learn,” Aiyuk said. “I feel like I’ve been through a lot in my first two years, but I wake up every day grateful for everything, for every lesson learned.”