In what many consider the best wide receiver class since 2014, there is endless variability in the rankings after the top trio of Oklahoma's CeeDee Lamb and the Alabama duo of Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs. Some prefer the athletic prototypes such as Baylor's Denzel Mims and Clemson's Tee Higgins, whereas others prefer the safety in sure-handed players such as USC's Michael Pittman Jr. and LSU's Justin Jefferson. With starting-quality options of all makes and models set to go in the first two days of the draft, ranking the fourth through tenth (or so) wide receivers in this class comes down to preference and what is believed to be fixable once each player enters the NFL.
Arizona State's Brandon Aiyuk is among the most volatile players in that group precisely because some of his flaws can be tricky to parse, but he can be very explosive with the ball in his hands. A former JUCO transfer, Aiyuk played a complementary role in 2018 opposite N'Keal Harry (a future New England Patriots' first-round pick) before taking on the bulk of the production himself in 2019. By and large, Aiyuk's route tree consisted of go routes, glances, posts, slants, and screens -- mostly routes that ask him to do little besides run into space. Aiyuk's route diversity was really no different than what we have all come to criticize receivers from Baylor and similar offenses for, but he was exceptionally productive on those limited routes in 2019, so he earned himself a spot in the conversation of this class' best second-tier receiver.
Aiyuk proved himself best at separating on quicker routes. Aiyuk is a peculiar route-runner in that he does not have quick feet off the line or when getting into his breaks, but he explodes out of his breaks very well, creating an instant window of space for himself. It is no wonder Aiyuk scored in the 88th and 92nd percentiles in the broad and vertical jumps, respectively.
This touchdown was one of Aiyuk's cleanest routes all year. At the snap, Aiyuk slides over a half-foot to sell the possibility of creating extra space on the boundary. USC's cornerback matches the slide, slightly opening his hips to the boundary in preparation for Aiyuk cutting outside. Aiyuk jams his outside foot in the ground and gives a quick head fake to get the cornerback to bite before exploding back inside to give a wide-open window for his quarterback.
In this clip, Aiyuk is the No. 3 (innermost) receiver to the trips side of the formation. Colorado's defense shows blitz before the snap and tries to disguise who is covering Aiyuk. Once the ball is snapped, Colorado's nickel defender flies downhill for the blitz, leaving a linebacker in space against Aiyuk on a juke route. Aiyuk angles his stem slightly toward the middle of the field in order to midpoint the linebacker. In doing so, Aiyuk puts the linebacker in a tougher position because the linebacker can no longer "cheat" to cover one way or the other. The conflict works exactly as planned for Aiyuk as he jabs outside before bursting back over the middle of the field, leaving the linebacker in the dust.
As nice as some of Aiyuk's quick-game separation is, a larger portion of his value in the short area lies in his ability after the catch. Aiyuk ran a slightly disappointing 4.50-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, but his play speed is much faster, and he runs with the pace and attitude of a running back. Comparisons to D.J. Moore, Deebo Samuel, and Golden Tate feel tired at this point, but Aiyuk fits into that niche role as a ball-carrying specialist who can thrive on screens.
When Aiyuk's foot hits the ground at the end of his catch process, Colorado has a defender within about a foot of him and ready to strike him down for a tackle for loss. Somehow, someway, Aiyuk finds the stop-start ability to cut immediately back inside, sprint across the line of scrimmage, and effectively turn this busted bubble screen into a reverse the other way. Though Aiyuk did not quite have the balance and power to plow his way into the end zone, his quick thinking and explosive cut earned a fresh set of downs inside the opposing 5-yard line for the Sun Devils.
Aiyuk was not always afforded space with which to work, though, and that will only continue in the NFL when he faces more press coverage. Against defenses that preferred press coverage, primarily California, Aiyuk struggled to win off the line of scrimmage and gain separation on deeper routes. Aiyuk can dominate on posts, glances, and go routes when given a free release versus off coverage, but when a cornerback gets up in his face and gives him some resistance, Aiyuk crumbles.
Cal's cornerback is lined up directly over Aiyuk in a clear press man look at the bottom of the screen. Aiyuk tries to give the cornerback a little shake-and-bake off the line, but the cornerback never bites and stays patient until Aiyuk fully declares his outside stem. The moment Aiyuk commits outside, the cornerback turns and stabs his near arm into Aiyuk's chest. Aiyuk does nothing to preempt the contact, nor does he have the raw horsepower to just blow through the contact and get up the field. As such, Cal's cornerback has little issue in driving Aiyuk further and further to the sideline to force a difficult, and ultimately incomplete, throw for Arizona State's quarterback. More starting NFL cornerbacks than not will be able to do the same.
Similar story as the last play for this clip. Aiyuk (top of screen) is running a vertical route again, but this time changes his approach. Rather than shuffling out and then immediately committing through the cornerback's outside shoulder, Aiyuk tries to push directly through the defender and gain a physical advantage so he can shove the cornerback out of the way and take off. The defender never gives up space between the two, though, and backpedals perfectly while keeping Aiyuk in check.
The cornerback at the bottom of the screen does not even give Aiyuk a chance on this play. Right off the snap, Cal's cornerback thrusts both hands at Aiyuk's chest to disrupt his release. Aiyuk gets stopped fully in his tracks and has to reset in order to get back into his route stem. Aiyuk showed zero preparedness to handle this press attempt and did not even try to swipe at the cornerback's hands. He just let it happen, completely derailing the rhythm of his route. In the end, Aiyuk was fortunate enough to slip by a Cal secondary that botched their match assignments, but it is much more likely we see the starting point of this play on Aiyuk's future NFL film than it is we see the lucky result at the end.
While Aiyuk dominated against off coverage in college and will likely be able to do so in the NFL as well, he is going to have to be able to play versus contact at some point if he wants to be a decent NFL starter. That is not to say Aiyuk needs to suddenly become Anquan Boldin or Steve Smith, but his game must develop to the point where he can overcome the slightest degree of contact without immediately being put out of commission. In the NFL, any team with a half-decent secondary will be able to jam Aiyuk most of the time and wash him out of the offense's game plan entirely. It will take an optimistic amount of projection and development for Aiyuk to get to the point where he is no longer a liability versus press coverage, and even that may be two or three years down the line.
As such, it is entirely possible Aiyuk cannot see the field much as a rookie beyond being a gadget and short-area player. In some creative offenses, that will have value, but it still would not be an ideal use of resources, in either draft capital or snap investment.
That being said, the former Sun Devils star can make an instant impact on special teams. Aiyuk is a dominant kickoff and punt returner. Between his above-average speed and running back-like nature, Aiyuk has all the tools to be a fearless and fierce returner.
Last season, Aiyuk held the country's third-highest average yards per return on both punts (16.1) and kickoffs (31.8). Aiyuk only scored one touchdown on 28 combined return attempts in 2019, but being able to so consistently pick up chunks of yardage is a more encouraging sign of a quality returner than touchdowns over a relatively small sample. Save for a small handful of teams, Aiyuk would be the best return man on an NFL roster right away.
It is tough to not be at least somewhat intrigued by Aiyuk's playmaking tools and craftiness in the short area. In the right scheme (duh), Aiyuk can carve out a role as someone who is an extension of the run game on sweeps, screens, shallows, etc. However, that kind of player would be a No. 3 receiver at best in most any offense around the league. Aiyuk also needs a sizable degree of development in order to beat press coverage, sharpen his foot speed, and expand his route tree -- and there is no guarantee he ever gets there. Whichever team drafts Aiyuk is likely accepting him as a non-starter in Year 1 and hoping to hone his playmaking tools for future seasons. Aiyuk will almost certainly be a role-player and special teamer in 2020.
While the untapped potential for a player such as Aiyuk is enticing, the projection is too high and immediate value too low for him to be valued as a top-50 pick. Perhaps a third-round pick is fair for the Arizona State receiver, but even that feels a tad rich in a draft class loaded with starting-caliber receivers on Day 2. Selecting Aiyuk with a premium pick is a vote of confidence towards a team's offensive coaching staff that they can get him producing ahead of schedule.