The 2018 NFL season had a San Francisco 49ers pass-catcher come out and light the fantasy football world on fire. That was George Kittle. The 2019 NFL season had a San Francisco 49ers pass-catcher come out and light the fantasy football world on fire. That was Deebo Samuel. Then, the 2020 NFL season had a San Francisco 49ers pass-catcher come out and light the fantasy football world on fire. That wide receiver was Brandon Aiyuk.
People pegged Deebo as a top-end WR2 who had WR1 upside (though injuries derailed that). Now, people do the same for Aiyuk (WR27 by FantasyPros Expert Consensus Ranking). Unfortunately, across the last three seasons, the San Francisco 49ers throw the ball just 510 times per season, the eighth-fewest pass attempts over that time span. The 49ers also prioritize George Kittle. Does Brandon Aiyuk have an upside problem, namely, a George Kittle problem? Let’s dive into the numbers.
The Niners threw to wide receivers the third-fewest times in the last three years (771 times). Since George Kittle emerged in the 2018 season, he has missed 12 games—nearly one-third of the games in that timeframe. It’s a big sample, and it all comes from the last two seasons (three games in 2019 and nine games in 2020). The 49ers throw the ball about the same whether or not George Kittle is in the lineup (30-31 times per game), so that’s not the problem. The 49ers have a set run/pass split and just pick and choose the targets from there. Adding or removing George Kittle does not change the prioritization. They merely divide up the targets between wide receivers and tight ends differently. And oh boy, is it a different distribution.
With George Kittle in the lineup, the 49ers throw the ball to wide receivers 14.6 times per game. Without George Kittle, that number bounces up to 17.9 times per game. Here’s the rub on that 17.9 times per game; that would still be the eighth-lowest target distribution to wide receivers over the last three seasons. The 14.6 times per game comes out to just about 233.6 targets per season to wide receivers. That would be the second-lowest, between the Raiders and the Ravens. It’s a rough go of things for the wide receivers whether or not George Kittle is in the lineup. But what about George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, and Brandon Aiyuk?
The YAC Bros have played four games together so far, as injuries to all three guys limited their availability last season. In those four games (three with Jimmy Garoppolo), Deebo Samuel averaged 5.5 targets, Brandon Aiyuk averaged 5.3 targets and George Kittle averaged 10 targets. This is a problem, and target distribution is a problem that popped up for Deebo Samuel vis-à-vis George Kittle in Samuel’s rookie campaign. Deebo played 13 games with Kittle and averaged 4.6 touches (4.6 targets) for 55 yards per game. Without Kittle, those numbers went to 8 touches (10.5 targets) for 123 yards per game. In his first two seasons, Samuel averages 9 touches without Kittle, and 4.6 with Kittle (and 55.8 yards with Kittle, and 92.8 without him).
Brandon Aiyuk experienced similar issues in his rookie campaign, as well. Aiyuk played six games with Kittle and six games without Kittle. With Kittle, he averaged 58 yards per game on 3.7 catches (and 5.5 targets). Without Kittle, he averaged nearly 80 yards on 10.5 targets (6.3 catches per game). The difference was night and day for Aiyuk his rookie campaign, as well as for Deebo Samuel through his first two years in the league.
But what about the Deebo Samuel factor? Well, Aiyuk played six games with Deebo and six games without Deebo. Aiyuk’s target difference was 0.6 targets per game. The slack lost by Deebo was picked up by guys like Kendrick Bourne, River Cracraft, and Trent Taylor. Deebo did not take from Aiyuk (though Deebo had 13 targets in the one game he played without Aiyuk), but rather they share the shadow in the passing game created by George Kittle.
The issue with Aiyuk’s targets and Deebo’s targets all go down to one simple fact: the 49ers’ target priority is George Kittle, a massive gulf, then everyone else. In his three seasons since he emerged as a force, the 49ers pass to wide receivers 48.1% of the time with George Kittle in the lineup. Without him? 57.49%. And both Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk benefitted from Kittle’s absence during their time in the league.
So, what is Aiyuk’s upside? I’m not going to go insane and say a top-15 season isn’t in the cards. He’s eminently talented and has upside for days. The problem comes down to targets. If Deebo can stay healthy (a big if) and if George Kittle can stay healthy (a somewhat smaller if), then there won’t be enough to go around for Aiyuk to breakout in 2021, as people think. Over the last three seasons, the top WR target received 57.37% of their team’s wide receiver targets. If Aiyuk gets those in 2021, he’s looking at about 9 targets per game. Again, that is if he has the same WR target rate as Michael Thomas (2018/2019) and Davante Adams (2020).
In all likelihood, he’s looking to max out at 6.5 targets per game (an additional target per contest, or a respectable 104 targets). Assuming a 2.0 yard per target increase (9.8 yards per target), he ends up with 1,019 yards. That 9.8 yards per target figure is similar to other highly-talented, high-volume players in 2020, such as Calvin Ridley (9.6 yards per target), Stefon Diggs (9.2 YPT), Davante Adams (9.2 YPT), and D.K. Metcalf/A.J. Brown/D.J. Moore (all 10.1 YPT).
A more efficient season isn’t out of the realm of possibility, but I am not counting on him breaking the 10.5 yards per target barrier to reach the heights of Julio Jones (11.3) or Will Fuller (11.7), given his 7.8 yards per target figure in 2020.
Brandon Aiyuk is very good. Scratch that, he is very very good. We saw that on display last season. Unfortunately, he has the looming target distribution problem on a run-first offense with a team that has an elite target share going to Kittle. Is it possible the Niners take away from Kittle to give to Aiyuk? Yes. Is it probable? Not likely, given the 49ers’ desire to funnel as many targets to George Kittle as humanly possible. Should Kittle get reinjured in 2021, or they downshift his responsibilities to stave off an injury, then I like Aiyuk’s upside. Should Kittle play a full sixteen games, I am not bullish out of target distribution alone.
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