Mailbag: Will Brandon Aiyuk produce as a rookie for the 49ers? - Sports Illustrated

Mailbag: Brandon Aiyuk's Rookie Season Production and Cam Newton in 2021

How much will Brandon Aiyuk produce as a rookie in San Francisco? Plus, could Cam Newton stay in New England beyond one year, redrafting the 2018 quarterbacks, the loaded 2021 running back market, moving games to different days of the week and more.
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Eight days left until the season! Let’s get right into the mailbag …

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From Brent (@Brent_32): Big fans of yours, keep up the great coverage. Do you believe Aiyuk will be ready for Week 1? And how big of an impact do you think he makes for the 49ers?

First of all, thanks for saying that, Brent. And yes, I do believe Brandon Aiyuk will be an impact player in Year 1 for the Niners. To start with, I believe strongly in Kyle Shanahan’s ability to evaluate receivers, and the Arizona State product was front of mind for the Niners’ coach in the weeks leading up to the draft. San Francisco had him right there with CeeDee Lamb atop the receiver board. Second, nothing I’ve heard since then would make me believe Shanahan’s opinion has changed in the least.

The other thing to remember here is that Shanahan showed an ability last year to get a rookie receiver on the field and producing, which isn’t always easy to do at that position. Deebo Samuel, a 2019 second-rounder, had three or more catches in eight of his first nine games as a pro and was a major factor in the Niners’ offense in the playoffs.

Now, does this mean 1,200 yards and 10 touchdowns for Aiyuk? No. But add up Shanahan’s ability to ID receivers, his willingness to play them young and San Francisco’s injury situation at the position, and I’d tell you I think the 25th pick is going to get every chance to show what he can do.

From Mike Durand (@MikeyD_31): Is Cam Newton a for-sure, one-year-only thing in New England?

Mike, no, he’s not a for-sure anything. In fact, I think that’s probably the beauty the Patriots saw in this situation; it’s perfect as a current-year thing with potential for more.

From a 2020 standpoint, given that the Patriots’ quarterback situation was going to be in some state of flux after Tom Brady left regardless, and given what COVID-19 has done to the calendar, bringing in someone like Newton helps on a couple of fronts.

One, no other team has gotten any sort of preseason glimpse at what the offense looks like—they just know Cam makes it different. Two, after the lockout in 2011, Bill Belichick told his team that conditioning would be key with the loss of the offseason program. Well, that applies this year, too, and what better way to take advantage of opponents playing their way into shape than to throw a punishing run game with a 270-pound quarterback at them?

And if all this works? Well, remember, guys like Corey Dillon and Randy Moss arrived as experiments over a decade ago, most people viewed them as one-year rentals, and each guy wound up signing long-term thereafter. Newton is five years removed from winning the MVP award, and he looked great (and more evolved as a QB) before getting hurt less than two years ago. Plus, he’s still just 31. So, yes, he could be the long-term answer.

So the Patriots get the best of both worlds here.

From Let's Talk Jets! (@TalkJetsRadio): Are there any WR options that could become available via trade for the Jets?

Jets, the trade market has been very quiet to this point. Honestly, I’ve heard one name floating around (that’s Cardinals WR Hakeem Butler), and that’s it. And that could create a seller’s market for receivers. If teams are desperate for help, and it’s not out there, then that might lead to more aggressive offers. (Teams, in fact, have gotten calls on receivers who aren’t on the block, which further puts the seller in the driver’s seat.)

Taking all of that into account, I can’t imagine that GM Joe Douglas is going to overreach for immediate help, based on where his team is right now. He drafted Baylor wideout Denzel Mims late in the second round, but mostly spent the offseason rebuilding through the lines of scrimmage and didn’t panic to add a receiver or corner. So don’t bet on him suddenly doing something wild now.

Lamar Jackson

From WyomingCoog (@WyomingCoog): If the 2018 QB draft class was re-drafted today ... in what order do Allen, Darnold, Lamar and Baker go?

Coog, it’d be silly to have anyone but the reigning MVP first. So yes, Lamar Jackson would be the first to go in a redraft. Jackson’s playmaking ability has translated seamlessly, he’s progressively improved as a passer and he still has room to grow.

My feeling is Baker Mayfield would be the second one off the board. He was probably the best of the four during their rookie year of 2018, and the things that made Mayfield a special prospect—innate accuracy, feel in the pocket, competitiveness—are all still there. He’s got reinforcements on the offensive line, too, and I think Kevin Stefanski’s plan for him going forward is a good one.

Sam Darnold and Josh Allen are neck and neck. I’d give Darnold a small edge right now. But it’s close. And the good news here is that all four carry pretty significant promise in Year 3 as pros. The odds tell us that all four of the guys won’t wind being top-10 quarterbacks (obviously, Jackson has already gotten there). But I think all four have shown the potential to become that, which is a good sign for where the class of 2018 is.

From John Brady (@winstonsdad01): Give us your divisional winners and wild card projections going into the season.

Not yet! Our season predictions are coming to the site next week.

From Tom Walker (@tom_walker89): 2021 free agent RB market is loaded. How many of them actually make it to free agency?

Hey, Tom. Obviously, we know that Christian McCaffrey and Joe Mixon got deals, and the gap between those two is notable—the former came in at $16 million per year, the latter at $12 million per. To me, that makes deals for Saints RB Alvin Kamara and Vikings RB Dalvin Cook more difficult, because each side of the table can come in with different sets of expectations. Kamara and Cook, no question, want to be close to where McCaffrey is. But there are now two deals (Mixon’s and Derrick Henry’s) at a lower price for teams to point to.

So … what happens here? I think Kamara’s will get done. I’m less confident about Cook’s. And I think Steelers RB James Conner will make it to the market and head up a class that also could have Green Bay’s Aaron Jones, Denver’s Philip Lindsay, Indy’s Marlon Mack and Arizona’s Kenyan Drake in it. Add to that a strong 2021 draft class at the position (Travis Etienne, Najee Harris, Chuba Hubbard), and it’s easy to see why teams might be inclined to sit tight.

Lots of options are looming on the horizon if you’re hesitant to pay your own back now.

From Fenton (@cfenton23): How likely is it that we see at least one NFL game played on a Tuesday, Wednesday or a Friday this season because of delays in games?

Fenton, I think college football’s getting played. The SEC, ACC and Big 12 have already trudged past schools going online and practices getting paused, so barring something wild happening (and in 2020, you can’t rule anything out), I think the college season will start on time and has a decent likelihood of finishing on time, too, if conditions don’t worsen in the country as a whole. So that would take Saturdays out of equation.

And as for other days of the week, I don’t think it’s impossible games get moved to Friday night, but I would say it’s pretty improbable. Moving games would mean hurting the NFL’s signature Sunday product, and so I’d think the payoff to do it would have to be significant. I’d been against moving games to Saturday, but I can certainly understand the logic—the appetite for football on that day, if college football were gone, would be huge, and could help to mitigate the looming revenue shortfall.

Is there the same thirst for games to go to Friday night? I don’t see it, and I’m not sure the networks would make it worth the NFL’s while.

From Moose Block (@moose_block): What do you make of all the roster changes by the Jags? Are they already preparing to select Trevor Lawrence in next year’s draft?

Moose, on one hand, I’d say that it came down to what the team really looked like. The defense was aging and stars wanted out, and the offense wasn’t nearly good enough to sustain a retooling of the team’s overwhelming strength. I’d also say from an asset-management standpoint, they did O.K. getting what they did for Jalen Ramsey, Yannick Ngakoue, Dante Fowler, A.J. Bouye and Calais Campbell via trade. And they go forward with a lot to work with, draft-pick-wise.

All that said, this is also a result of whiffing on quarterbacks and blowing draft picks. That the team drafted in the top five for six straight years (2012-17), and has nothing but a few draft picks via trade to show for it isn’t good. That only Fowler met expectations is worse. And that’s the crux of this—yes, great defenses have a pretty short shelf life. The key to fighting that is consistently drafting well. We’ve seen it happen in places like Seattle and Baltimore.

We haven’t seen it happen in Jacksonville. So now the rebuild is on.

And yes, I think that drafting a quarterback high is in play, whether it’s Lawrence, Justin Fields or Trey Lance. The good news is that this looks like it’s going to be a good year to be in the business of doing that. The bad news is you’ll have to be bad to get there—which could mean that whether they’re drafting first (Lawrence) or soon after that (Fields, Lance), the guys in charge now may not be the ones making the pick.

From Matt Ramas (@matt_ramas): Trubisky or Foles as the starter in week 1? If it's Foles, does Trubisky get another starting job in the league at some point?

Matt, I think Nick Foles will get the nod over Mitch Trubisky. I know he’s got a slim lead in the derby right now, and I think that will hold until Matt Nagy makes his final call on Chicago’s quarterback. The main reason why is what the Bears are going to need in 2020: a steady hand at the position who can move the chains and help the offense play a game that accentuates what remains a really, really good defense.

I also wouldn’t underrate Foles’s background with coordinator Bill Lazor and quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo. Both know how to deploy and effectively manage him within an offense (Nagy had Foles too, in K.C., albeit as a backup), which is another piece in making all of this work and getting one more good run with the Khalil Mack–led unit on the other side of the ball.

The hard part, of course, is the finality such a decision would bring to Trubisky’s time as the team’s quarterback. But we sort of already got that with his fifth-year option being declined back in May. This would allow the team to go back to Trubisky if Foles struggles or gets hurt; since the option for 2021 is gone, they wouldn’t risk triggering a huge injury guarantee next year by playing Trubisky this year.

So, yeah, I think Foles will be the guy.