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The 49ers made two trades on Thursday night, in the opening round of the 2020 NFL Draft. They began the night with pick 13 and pick 31, and ended it with pick 14 and Javon Kinlaw, defensive tackle, South Carolina, and pick 25, Brandon Aiyuk, wide receiver, Arizona State.
General manager John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan addressed the moves on Thursday night. Here’s what we learned.
Kinlaw was at the top of the 49ers’ wish list at 13
Said Lynch: “[Kinlaw] was actually the first guy on our list that we would have taken at 13.”
Lynch had said on Monday that the 49ers had a list of six players who they would not budge from for trades at pick 13, and Kinlaw clearly led that list. The reason the 49ers made the one-spot trade down with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is that they felt it was likely Tampa Bay wouldn’t take Kinlaw (obviously, with Iowa offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs still on the board) and that regardless, one of their top six would be there.
Why were the 49ers so enamored with him? The medical on him came out clean, as done in person at the Senior Bowl, where John Lynch saw Kinlaw do some mean things to people.
“I was down there at the Senior Bowl he went and absolutely decimated folks down there,” Lynch said.
He said the knee didn’t flare up and was examined by the 49ers’ medical as extensive as was possible at the time. Lynch said the organization “got to the point where we were comfortable there,” and pointed to the fact that he’s missed one game in college.
“There’s a few guys who can’t pass on at 13 and Kinlaw was one of those guys,” Shanahan said. To also pick up a fourth-rounder, “we thought was unbelievable.”
Aiyuk (and CeeDee Lamb) were close on that list, hence the trade up to 25
One of those impossible-to-pass-on players was Aiyuk, and it sounds like Lamb was right behind him.
“Aiyuk was one of the guys that we were going to do that for if Kinlaw wasn’t there,” Shanahan said.
The logic is as follows: had Kinlaw not been available, the 49ers may have drafted Brandon Aiyuk, or would have at least strongly considered it. Either way, they felt like if Kinlaw wasn’t available, they were happy with the other options.
When they were sitting at pick 31 and saw Aiyuk at 25, they felt like they had to jump up. As Shanahan said, “We feel very strongly from our Intel over the last few months, there’s no way Aiyuk getting to 31.”
Perhaps the 49ers believed the Packers were going to draft Aiyuk at 26. They took quarterback Jordan Love, and no other receivers were drafted in the first round. They also viewed the cost as reasonable, even with a pick gap already from rounds two through three. In Shanahan’s mind, a fourth-round pick is going to have a hard time making the team.
“So the risk then to go up and get a starting receiver with the starting three technique that we already got it was something we didn’t think was going to be there and we just feel real happy it was,” Shanahan said.
Why was Shanahan so enamored with Aiyuk?
In short, he can do everything. He’s physical, versatile, and has the ideal, greatness-pursuing mindset the 49ers are looking for. Here’s how Shanahan views him:
“When I just watched them all and not knowing where they’re gonna go at all, I loved it Aiyuk and the first time, not knowing anything about him, I don’t know a lot about college football till I get into these guys and to see him just, they didn’t do everything in our offense but he has on tape that he can run every single route, and he can do it outside the numbers and you can do it inside the numbers and he has a certain skill set where I think it’s similar to Dante [Pettis]’s, in terms of, you want to just peg them at one position, but he can do all three he can play the X, he can play the Z, he play the F, he’s got the speed again on top, he’s got the quickness to play in the slot. He’s got the toughness to go over the middle and the guy is just completely committed to me into being as good as God ever intended him to be.”
“I think Brandon would have been great whatever team he went to, and I’m so excited to have a guy like that because I think we can use them any way we want. And I think he’s capable of doing everything from an athletic standpoint, and I think he has the mentality from a toughness standpoint, in terms of the contact of the game and also in terms of this guy is just not happy with today, this guy wants to be great.
“I want someone like that, and I think he has the tools to be great. I think he has the mindset to be great, and I promise you schematically we’re going to give him every chance to do that. And when that’s the case, and you have a guy wired that way and you have a system that way, I mean, what can hold him back? I mean there’s always injuries that you know you can’t hold on to it but Brandon, you guys asked if he’s the top guy, he was my favorite receiver I evaluated, there’s no doubt on that. CeeDee Lamb was a hell of a player can make a lot of plays. So, I mean, I always keep it pretty real with you guys and so that was a guy who was competition with him. But in terms of the receiver and just all the positions and developed this guy was there from the first time we watched him.”
Highlighted above are the parts of Shanahan’s evaluation that really matter. Most of all, he values his positional and athletic versatility, and secondarily, values his mindset. His mention of Dante Pettis is telling, because in an ideal world, this would have been Pettis. But Pettis, by all accounts, does not have that aggressive mindset. Maybe that’s a harsh assessment, but it’s not been disproven thus far in his career, and the NFL is a harsh, competitive landscape. Aiyuk clearly projects to be what Shanahan had hoped Pettis would be.