Elite player Brandon Aiyuk is obscured by the 49ers’ abundance of attacking weapons…

Wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk and the San Francisco 49ers are at odds over a contract, which has sparked trade speculations on a frequent basis and a general conversation about how excellent he is.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, the 49ers have been inconsistent in their assessment of Aiyuk. They have described him as an outstanding No. 1 receiver when it comes to setting a trade price for potential suitors, but as a high-end No. 2 receiver when it comes to contract negotiations.

That very much covers the gamut of views on Aiyuk across the wider football community. But there’s no denying that he is a top-tier receiver.

It’s simple to argue that Aiyuk isn’t one of the greatest players in the game. Receivers have always been a statistically driven position, and Aiyuk doesn’t post particularly impressive metrics in a time when passing numbers are always rising.

He was tied for 18th in touchdowns, 31st in catches, and ninth in receiving yardage the previous season. The holy trinity of receiver numbers remains intact, but they are plainly surface-level data with no contextual significance.

Last season, thirty-six players were targeted more often than Aiyuk. Production is driven by opportunity, and although recipients have some power over their own possibilities, it is not the primary reason. The 49ers offense has a lot of mouths to feed, but Aiyuk does a good job of getting open.

Without a doubt, San Francisco boasts the NFL’s greatest pool of skill-position players. Together with Aiyuk, Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, and George Kittle are all either exceptional playmakers or maybe the greatest in the league in their particular positions.

For Aiyuk, Kittle in particular serves as a useful case study. There have been instances in which the 49ers’ offense was severely limited and Kittle was the main creator of plays in the game plan. He usually takes the lead when it does.

Kittle has seen ten targets or more thirteen times in his career. He has averaged 114 yards per game in those contests, clearing 150 four times (and two more times at 149). However, Kittle usually plays a much lower part since the 49ers have so many playmakers. He only averaged 5.5 targets per game the previous season.

Aiyuk hasn’t yet gained the respect of many, but there aren’t many excellent tight ends in the NFL. Kittle is an outstanding player at his position, as seen by his repeated success when the offense goes through him. Nevertheless, there are indications that he belongs in the same group.

Aiyuk is unquestionably one of the most effective receivers in the game, making the most of the opportunities he does get, if we go a little bit deeper than those high-level numbers from earlier. During the 2023 regular season, Tyreek Hill had the highest yards per route run (3.82) in the league, followed by Aiyuk in third place (3.01). Only four other receivers have achieved 3.0 in the last ten years.

Targets for Aiyuk produced a 124.0 passer rating during the previous season; across his career, that number is 112.8.

The PFF ratings correspond with those efficiency figures as well. PFF grades, which are unaffected by play outcomes and a number of statistical confounding variables, provide a play-by-play evaluation of a player’s performance. Aiyuk’s PFF grade from the previous season was the highest of any 49ers receiver, only surpassed by Tyreek Hill. He also received a top-10 grade in run blocking.

Aiyuk’s hands are also quite good. In 2023, he only dropped two passes, and in a season, he has never dropped more than six.

The sample size alone provides the best defense against Aiyuk’s status as a genuinely outstanding receiver in the modern NFL. By every metric other than volume metrics, he was outstanding in the previous season, improving upon his career baseline of “very good, but not elite.” If that’s a young receiver’s predicted growth and development curve and we can count on that kind of performance to continue, then he’s among the best in the business and should be compensated appropriately. However, it’s also feasible that it was the peak of his powers, and that his actual baseline will fall between what he shown in previous seasons and this one.

Given that the 49ers’ scheme will provide him less opportunities than other guys, there is a greater case to be made in that scenario that he isn’t as much of a game-changing talent as the best receivers in the league.

What Schefter has learned from the 49ers may be the true picture of the situation: Aiyuk would be more valuable to a different club where he would play a larger role than he is to San Francisco. Although their offense restricts his influence, the front office would want to have him on the roster and keep the finest weapons in the game, thus it doesn’t make sense for them to pay him as much as Tyreek Hill or Justin Jefferson.

The bottom line is that Aiyuk is an elite receiver, but if you judge such things by volume stats, we may never see that evidence in San Francisco.

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