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Reno's Brandon Aiyuk lived up to the lofty hype during rookie season

Brandon Aiyuk
Brandon Aiyuk scored seven touchdowns in 12 games during his rookie season with the 49ers. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

On the night Brandon Aiyuk was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers, the general manager who made the pick, John Lynch, was blunt.

"Know when you go to bed tonight, you were expensive, man," Lynch told Aiyuk, who watched the draft from his hometown of Reno. "You cost us a lot, but you're worth it."

San Francisco contemplated using the No. 13 pick on Aiyuk, a McQueen High graduate. Instead, it opted for South Carolina defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw before trading up later in the first round to nab Aiyuk. That trade cost the 49ers three draft picks (Nos. 31, No. 117 and No. 176) to move up six spots to No. 25 to select Aiyuk.

It's highly unlikely the 49ers regret the move after Aiyuk's rookie season, which ended one game early as a high ankle sprain will keep him out of the lineup for San Francisco's regular-season finale Sunday against the Seahawks.

Aiyuk, the second first-round NFL draft pick out of Northern Nevada, missed four games in his first NFL season, including the opener with a hamstring injury and two games in the middle of the season due to COVID-19. But when Aiyuk was on the field, the Arizona State alum lived up to the hype.

In 12 games, Aiyuk caught 60 passes on 96 targets, breaking the 49ers' rookie record for receptions set by Deebo Samuel last year. Aiyuk reeled in 748 receiving yards, a solid 12.5 per catch, and scored seven touchdowns (five through the air and two on rushes). Aiyuk did all this despite getting COVID-19 in the middle of the season and playing with some of the worst quarterback play in the NFL after starter Jimmy Garoppolo was limited to six games due to injury.

The 2020 draft was reputed as one of the best for wide receivers in NFL history. Indeed, 35 wideouts were selected, including six in the first round (Aiyuk was the sixth of those players) and 11 in the draft's first 49 picks. But only one rookie receiver had better per-play numbers than Aiyuk, that being Justin Jefferson, who went 22nd overall to the Minnesota Vikings.

Aiyuk ranked second among rookies in Pro Football Focus grade.

1. Justin Jefferson, 90.3

2. Brandon Aiyuk, 80.1

3. Tee Higgins, 75.4

4. CeeDee Lamb, 73.4

5. Chase Claypool, 72.8

After a year of NFL experience, Aiyuk should only be better next season if he's able to stay healthy. Samuel only played seven games due to injuries, and tight end George Kittle was limited to seven games as well. That trio along with better quarterback play and a healthier defense should put the 49ers, Super Bowl runner-ups last season, back in the mix for a playoff spot in 2021. This was largely a lost season for the 49ers thanks to a deluge of injuries, but one of the bright spots was the play of Aiyuk, who justified the move Lynch and the 49ers' brass made in giving up the draft capital required to draft Aiyuk.

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