ARIZONA STATE FOOTBALL

Former Sun Devil Aiyuk a middle-round pick in NFL fantasy drafts

Jul 12, 2020, 2:00 PM | Updated: 4:19 pm

Arizona State wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk runs for a first down against Colorado during the first h...

Arizona State wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk runs for a first down against Colorado during the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

While the early rounds of fantasy football drafts get most of the hype, it’s the selections in the second half of the draft that can either set you a part from the competition or give you a one-way ticket out to last place.

Late-round picking can be a tricky process, but there can be some absolute gems waiting in the wings, like the Ravens’ Lamar Jackson and the Jaguars’ D.J. Chark, last season.

This year, the later rounds could turn out to be a gold mine with the amount of talent entering the league through the draft, especially at wide receiver.

But while many have CeeDee Lamb, Jerry Jeudy or Henry Ruggs III as their top rookie wideouts this season, don’t be so quick to pass up on the former Arizona State Sun Devil and San Francisco 49ers rookie WR Brandon Aiyuk.

As it stands Sunday, Aiyuk is projected to finish the 2020-21 season ranked 74th among NFL wide receivers with 40 receptions, 532 yards and four touchdowns for just over 116 fantasy points.

The numbers may not jump off the page, but there’s more than enough evidence Aiyuk could surpass those numbers and impact fantasy leagues this season.

There’s no doubt head coach Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers love to run the football.

The 49ers ranked second in the NFL to only the Ravens in rushing attempts (498) last season, recording more than 2,300 yards on the ground to go along with a league-leading 23 scores.

Compared to the team’s run game, the passing attack had fewer attempts (478) and just five more touchdowns (28).

So, why all the hype on Aiyuk?

While the 49ers ranked near the bottom in passing attempts in 2019, the team’s completion percentage ranked as one of the best, with Jimmy Garopollo hitting his mark 69.1% of the time. San Francisco only trailed the New Orleans Saints and the then-Oakland Raiders in that category. The team also averaged 8.4 yards per passing play, second only to the Tennessee Titans (8.8).

The wide receiver room, however, is going to look a bit different for Garoppolo and the 49ers in 2020.

Not only did the team lose Emmanuel Sanders to the Saints in free agency, 49ers second-year WR Deebo Samuel could miss the start of the season after suffering a broken foot this offseason.

With Sanders’ 36 receptions (53 targets), 502 yards and three touchdowns from 2019 no longer on the roster, and given the rookie’s first-round price tag, Aiyuk should figure to be used a lot in the offense.

Throw in Samuel’s status for the start of the season and Aiyuk could be an early breakout candidate, which will only help him progress as an NFL WR and earn a good rapport with Jimmy G as the season rolls on.

But added to Aiyuk’s potential in the 49ers’ offense is his college resume.

The 49ers may have averaged 8.4 yards per pass, but looking closer, Garoppolo ranked in the bottom half of the league for average air yards per pass with 5.4. That means the QB is putting it in the hands of his pass catchers early and letting them do the work. Something Aiyuk is known for.

With his big-play abilities on full display in 2019, Aiyuk caught 65 balls for 1,192 yards and eight scores for head coach Herm Edwards and the Sun Devils.

Even more impressive, and what the 49ers obviously saw for their offense through the draft, is Aiyuk’s ability to extend plays.

The WR led all NCAA pass catchers in yards after contact with 378 and was third in yards after the catch with 710.

In the type of offense he’s in now, the biggest factor of his game moving forward to the next level will be his ability to make quick decisions with the football after the catch.

And given Aiyuk is arguably the best receiver on the team that’s healthy, with Kendrick Bourne and Jalen Hurd seemingly the next men up, the rookie WR could make a name for himself in fantasy football circles sooner rather than later.

Aiyuk’s abilities fit well with what the 49ers want out of their receiving game. If Samuel is out to start the season, Aiyuk very well should be a flex option with WR2 upside to start the season with George Kittle the only other pass catcher ahead of the rookie.

A middle-to-late round pick on the wide receiver could go a long way in helping secure your next title.

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