The 49ers have unfortunately caught the injury bug. Projected No. 1 WR Deebo Samuel (foot) is looking iffy at best for Week 1, and 2019 third-round WR/RB Jalen Hurd is feared to have suffered a torn ACL during practice on Aug. 17. Further complicating matters for this passing game is the reality that Emmanuel Sanders is now employed by the New Orleans Saints.
George Kittle is the 49ers’ No. 1 pass-game option. Don’t expect this to change anytime soon. He owns PFF's top two single-season marks in yards per route run over the past decade. Only Michael Thomas (3,130), Julio Jones (3,071), DeAndre Hopkins (2.737), Mike Evans (2,681) and Travis Kelce (2,565) have more receiving yards over the past two seasons.
However, things are murky after Kittle. The 49ers again figure to be a run-first offense, but this was the case in 2019 and Jimmy Garoppolo still managed to throw for 3,978 yards and 27 scores. What follows is a breakdown on who could rise to the No. 2 spot of Jimmy G’s unsettled pecking order inside of what figures to be another top-10 scoring offense.
The 49ers have plenty of (unproven) potential options at WR
There are six main receivers expected to compete for a spot in three-receiver formations ahead of next season. I’d expect the snap leaders to be as follows as long as Samuel and Hurd are sidelined:
1. Brandon Aiyuk was the 49ers' first-round pick and is the most-likely candidate to assume the featured No. 1 role. He doesn't possess overwhelming size (6-foot and 205-pounds) or speed (4.5-second 40-yard dash), but his average of 17 yards per catch at Arizona State reflects the reality that it's a problem to get him to the ground. Coach Kyle Shanahan called Aiyuk his favorite WR in the draft and has heaped offseason praise on the rookie, meaning a rather large Day 1 role is on the table. At a minimum, Aiyuk possesses the type of after-the-catch goodness to fit neatly inside this offense and see a handful of opportunities per game.
2. Kendrick Bourne converted all five of his targets inside the 10-yard line into scores during the regular season, making the most of his part-time role. Still, he's cleared 50 yards in just six of 46 games since joining the 49ers in 2017. Bourne’s average of 1.31 yards per route run ranked 80th among 117 WRs with at least 25 targets in 2019. A starting role is likely for the incumbent contributor; just don’t expect bunches of fantasy-friendly production.
3. Trent Taylor (5-foot-8 and 181-pounds) was the leading candidate to start out of the slot in 2019 before missing the entire season with a Jones fracture. He seems like the favorite to win back the slot job; Shanahan noted that Taylor had the best camp of any offensive player in 2019. A concentrated effort to get him the ball seems unlikely considering some of the other weapons on the field, although Aiyuk-Bourne-Taylor three-WR sets seem like the most-likely trio for Week 1.
4. Tavon Austin has averaged more yards per carry (6.8) than yards per target (5.5) during his seven-year career. Expect him to battle for more of Samuel’s leftover carries than his 81 pass-game opportunities, a role which should suit the speedy veteran well.
Tavon Austin, running back, THE running back, y'all pic.twitter.com/d1Z88M1NRw
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) August 14, 2020
5. Jauan Jennings was the team’s seventh-round selection in the 2020 draft. He possesses size (6-foot-3 and 215-pounds) that is largely missing from this unit, and there’s already been some big-slot hype for the rookie. Still, it’s more likely Jennings assumes more of a part-time role than a featured guy.
6. Dante Pettis averaged 10.4 yards per target in a promising rookie campaign… then sunk to 4.5 yards per target during a worst-case scenario 2019 encore. He's fighting for a roster spot ahead of 2020, which could seemingly involve working as the offense’s No. 3 WR if he can be more consistent.
7. J.J. Nelson spent 2019 with the Raiders after contributing to the Cardinals from 2015-2018. He’s averaged a respectable 7.9 yards per target but, like the offense’s other pint-sized receivers, seems unlikely to fight for a true every-down role in 2020.
8. Richie James is the team's primary returner and league-best flipper in the victory formation. While James does occasionally soak up some snaps, he has just 24 targets in 29 games over the past two seasons.
There’s also been plenty of hype surrounding Jerick McKinnon’s return to the field and potential for a heavy role in the passing game. Here’s to hoping McKinnon is still capable of functioning at a high level, but it seems most likely that the team’s 2020 first-day pick winds up as the Robin to Kittle’s Batman inside of this offense.
Go buy Aiyuk in fantasy drafts of all shapes and sizes
PFF college football analyst Mike Renner comped Aiyuk to longtime Shanahan favorite Pierre Garcon, noting:
“Both Aiyuk and Garcon are at their best with the ball in their hands. Give them a crease and they’re gone. The combination of sure hands and YAC ability is a safe one when projecting to the NFL. Aiyuk is still developing as a route-runner, as was Garcon initially in Indy. By the end of his career, though, Garcon had become one of the craftier wideouts in the league.”
Nobody averaged more yards after the catch in college than Aiyuk (9.9). This is certainly an offense that has specialized in setting up their beastly playmakers after the catch. Only A.J. Brown (8.8) averaged more yards after the catch per reception than Samuel (8.5). Kittle is PFF’s No. 1 TE in yards after the catch per reception since 2010.
Aiyuk fits the exact mold of a rookie receiver that we should expect to ball out early and often thanks to his 1) Elite after-the-catch ability, and 2) Depleted team WR depth chart. It’s hard to imagine this sort of talent failing to produce with the potential for at least a handful of designed fantasy-friendly touches per game.
Can barely spell Brandon Aiyuk without studpic.twitter.com/TGg3wj3FNy
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) August 17, 2020
Shanahan himself has already confirmed that the electric rookie seems capable of handling an immediate role:
“He's (Aiyuk) not a guy you've had to teach how to act or teach how important it is to learn this stuff. You can tell he understood that before he got here. And since we've been around him, you can tell he's been working, and that's why he's further ahead, I think, than a lot of rookies would be at this time.”
There have only been two rookie WRs drafted outside of the first three rounds who finished as a top-24 PPR performer since 2010: Mike Williams (the Tampa Bay one) and Tyreek Hill. The latter player undoubtedly would've been a Day 1 selection if it weren't for off-the-field issues. Drafting rookie receivers in the later rounds of fantasy drafts shouldn’t be about beating their ADP by a few spots; we want potential league-winning talent with the workload upside to function as a weekly starter.
Aiyuk is generally not being drafted inside of the top-60 receivers. His ~WR60 ADP should probably be closer to the WR40 range considering the likelihood that he’ll be a consistent starter inside of 2019’s second-ranked scoring offense.
Aiyuk checks all the boxes we want when rolling the dice on a first-year receiver and should be prioritized during the double-digit rounds in fantasy drafts of all shapes and sizes. I’d still take Henry Ruggs as this year’s rookie WR1, although Aiyuk’s 1) Fit in a proven high-scoring offense, 2) First-round draft capital, and 3) Empty WR depth chart, makes him arguably the front-runner for rookie WR2 ranks ahead of Jalen Reagor, CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy and Justin Jefferson, among others.