© Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
When head coach Kyle Shanahan said that he and the 49ers had Brandon Aiyuk ranked as their top wide receiver and would have drafted him with the 13th overall pick, in a draft class with Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, Henry Ruggs and even Justin Jefferson, it was eyebrow-raising.
So how did the 49ers come to that conclusion? General manager John Lynch joined KNBR on Tuesday and said it started with last year’s draft, as the 49ers were evaluating Patriots wide receiver N’Keal Harry at Arizona State. John Lynch is extraordinarily close with ASU head coach Herm Edwards, who, along with his wife, Lia, are the godparents of the Lynch’s daughter, Leah. Lynch and his wife, Linda are the godparents to the Edwards’ son, Marcus.
During the 2019 Draft process, Lynch said the 49ers “invested heavily” in scouting Harry and “kept seeing the other guy.” In this year’s process, the 49ers’ West Coast scout, Dominic DeCicco, was a huge advocate of Brandon Aiyuk.
“He’s got some rare traits,” Lynch said. “When you talk about the measurables, he’s in the 95th percentile in terms of his wingspan, his vertical jump, his 10-[yard] time… that’s the short-area explosiveness. And then the other testing: the intelligence testing, the strength of character and all that, he was off the charts. So you combine all that.”
But why was Aiyuk ahead of Lamb? It comes down to press coverage.
“He and CeeDee Lamb were our two highest-rated receivers at the end of the day and we had them almost dead even,” Lynch said. “I think with Brandon, the one thing we thought you had, you had a guy who could separate in routes. He had that quickness, that ability to get away from corners.”
Lynch continued, pointing to the style of aggressive jamming at the line of scrimmage that’s become commonplace. He called it “holding.”
“In today’s football, more than ever we see it. We saw it in the Super Bowl with Kansas City, these teams are holding,” Lynch said. “They’re getting up and jamming you, it’s like the old school football and they’re just saying they can’t call holding every play, so you need strong players that can kind of bust through that coverage, but you also don’t want to lose that separation.”
Read this how you will, but Lynch pointed to Aiyuk’s length, specifically in being able to catch overthrows. It’s hard not to think he had some, even passing thought of that Jimmy Garoppolo overthrow of Emmanuel Sanders in mind.
“And Brandon, we kept discovering, had that combination of the speed, the rare length, I mean he’s like Inspector Gadget sticking his arms out for these balls,” Lynch said. “It looks like it’s overthrown and then boom, he throws out those 33 1/2″ arms.”
As for any concerns about the 4.50 40-yard dash that Aiyuk ran at the Combine, Edwards was there to ease any of Lynch’s concern.
“And he never got caught. He ran a 4.5 at the Combine, which isn’t blazing fast, but the film showed a much faster player,” Lynch said. “And then you talk to Herm Edwards and he goes, as you can imagine, ‘Oh Lynchburg, he’s not 4.5, he’s 4.3 all day long. Trust your coach, trust your coach, Lynchburg.’ And then he spoke to what kind of guy Brandon was and what kind of competitor and we really wanted him.”
Here’s how Lynch explained the trade-up transpiring, something that he and Shanahan never thought would transpire, and led to a “holy cow” moment over Zoom.
“When we got interested in going back up is when Philly took the other receiver [Jalen Reagor] at 21, Kyle and I, through the Zoom, looked at each other and said, ‘Holy cow, we oughta think, we never thought about moving up in this draft,’” Lynch said. “If anything, it was going to be acquiring more picks. But right about there, because we had Aiyuk so high, we said, ‘We’ve got a chance, let’s start calling teams.’ So we put everyone to work and we found a partner in Minnesota to get up there and get Aiyuk. And he’s a guy, Kyle said on draft night, we would have taken on draft night, had a couple things, had Kinlaw been gone. There was a good chance we were taking him at 13.”