Yahoo Sports' top 2020 NFL draft prospects, No. 35: Arizona State WR Brandon Aiyuk

Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports

35. Arizona State WR Brandon Aiyuk

6-foot, 205 pounds 

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 5.98 — starter potential

TL;DR scouting report: Vertical receiver with eye-opening wingspan who can tilt the field once he adds polish to his game.

The skinny: Aiyuk was a 2-star junior-college recruit out of Sierra College in 2018, receiving his one Pac-12 offer from the Sun Devils and choosing them over mostly West Coast, Group of Five schools — many of whom recruited him as a defensive back. At Sierra, he totaled 2,499 all-purpose yards and 21 touchdowns over two seasons that included four 200-yard receiving games, plus punt-return TDs of 76 and 80 yards and a 76-yard kickoff.

As a junior, Aiyuk was the team’s primary punt returner (11 returns, 67 yards) and kick returner (14 returns, 314 yards, 22.4 average), as well as the team’s third receiver (33 catches, 474 yards, three touchdowns) in 13 games (three starts).

Aiyuk then took the reins as the Sun Devils’ No. 1 receiver from 2019 first-round pick N’Keal Harry. In 12 games in 2019, Aiyuk caught 65 passes for 1,192 yards (18.3-yard average) with eight TDs, earning third-team AP All-America and first-team all-conference mention. He also returned 14 punts for 226 yards (16.1-yard average) with one touchdown and ran back 14 kickoffs for 446 yards (31.9-yard average). 

Aiyuk, who turned 22 years old in March, attended the Senior Bowl but was medically red-flagged for a hip injury and was not cleared to participate. He attended the NFL scouting combine, where he ran the 40-yard dash (4.5 seconds), competed in the bench press (11 reps) and jumped in both the vertical (40 inches) and broad jumps (10-foot-8), as well as participating in the positional work.

Upside: Nickname is “Ai-YAC” and for good reason — nearly 60 percent of his yards came after the catch. True three-level threat who can take a slant 50 yards just as easily as he can high-point a deep ball. Underrated working the middle of the field — gains quick separation and has good toughness and vision in the open field.

Plays faster than combine 40 time would indicate — routinely seen blowing by cornerbacks, especially in off-man coverage. Was expected to run in the low 4.4s or even high 4.3s. Excellent explosion displayed in outstanding jumping numbers — tested in 88th and 92nd percentile among combine receivers since 1999. Shoots off the line and gets into his routes with urgency — can cross the face of corners with that burst.

Watch this play against Washington State where Aiyuk (bottom of your screen) puts on a subtle shoulder dip at the stem, builds up steam on his route and roasts the corner and safety — despite the corner grabbing Aiyuk — for a 40-yard score:

Even when he was contacted downfield, Aiyuk didn't break stride and took the top off the Cougars' defense.

Caught an 86-yard TD later in that same game — also hauled in passes of 77 and 81 yards in 2019. Had at least one pass of 25 yards or longer in eight of 12 games last season. Has build-up speed to test corners and threaten safeties. Also possesses make-you-miss qualities that extend beyond the speed. 

Insane wingspan for a sub 6-foot receiver — 80 inches, which was even longer than a handful of combine offensive tackles. Gives him the length you’d normally see in a pass catcher who is 6-3 or 6-4. Nice-sized hands (9 3/4 inches) for his frame.

Can impact special-teams units as punt and kick returner — uses same good vision as short-screen receiver to navigate cracks in the coverage team and break long runbacks. Also a candidate for “hands” team for onsides kicks and could be tried as a gunner or jammer, even though he didn’t do that at ASU.

Ascending player with fascinating upside. Could be an excellent project for a patient WR coach to mold and develop over a few seasons.

Downside: One-year wonder to date. Development as receiver required and will need to expand his repertoire. Admittedly still honing his ability to identify coverages and get off press-man. ASU offense was slimmed down to accommodate freshman quarterback, keeping concepts simple.

Bigger, more physical corners had success getting their hands into him in press. Timing sometimes gets thrown off with downfield contact. Could use more core and upper-body strength and play stronger. Didn’t always maximize his length and leaping ability on 50-50 balls — still learning how to use his gifts in the air. Limited slot experience — mostly used out wide. Lined up almost exclusively on the left side of the formation out wide.

Hands suddenly got shaky late last season — five drops in final five games (on 53 targets) after only three drops in his first 20 college games (93 targets). Drops some short and intermediate balls that he definitely should have hauled in — seemed to struggle with the bullets (see Oregon State game) and the touch throws (see key drop late in Michigan State game) alike. Staff wanted to move him to cornerback at one point — still not a natural receiver yet.

Best-suited destination: Aiyuk should be able to step in immediately as a Day 1 punt and kick returner and will compete for a role as a big-play generator at receiver. There might be an adjustment period that limits his offensive duties, but Aiyuk has a chance to develop as a quality “X” or slot receiver with game-breaking abilities in time.

Among the teams we believe could have interest: Denver Broncos, Philadelphia Eagles, Las Vegas Raiders, Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears, San Francisco 49ers, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Dallas Cowboys, New York Jets, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, Houston Texans and Arizona Cardinals.

Arizona State's Brandon Aiyuk is also a dangerous kick returner. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Did you know: Prior to last season, the ASU coaches — among them, several former NFL coaches and players — were hard on Aiyuk, pushing him to be great.

One of his mentors was LB coach Antonio Pierce, a longtime linebacker for the New York Giants and a rising star in the coaching ranks. Pierce was a source of tough love for Aiyuk, who admittedly didn’t know what it took to be a great college player, much less a great NFL player.

“Twice a week, I would sit in AP’s office and just talk about the other side of football, that people don’t get to talk about a lot,” Aiyuk said at the combine. “There are a lot of things I didn’t understand, didn’t know, that were very helpful.”

Some of that had to do with protecting his assets and the responsibilities and trappings of fame. But a lot of what Pierce and the other coaches harped on was Aiyuk’s need to pay more attention to details in everything he did.

The staff implemented a new diet for Aiyuk, forcing him to stop his favorite food (fried chicken) and emphasized the importance of taking care of his body in other ways, such as stretching and therapy after practice. 

There also were extra tutorials on the finer points of playing wide receiver, which helped Aiyuk break out last season. His time spent with former NFL cornerback and head coach Herm Edwards proved to be valuable, Aiyuk said.

“He was someone I could talk to,” Aiyuk said. “I’m like, ‘All right, Coach, when you’re playing press-coverage, what’s the first thing you’re thinking?’ He can answer just because he has that background in the NFL. 

“And if he sees something in my release, he tells me, ‘As a DB, I can pick up on that. Your arms are going dead so I know you’re going to break.’ Stuff like that.”

They said it: “He’s just more gifted an athlete than [N’Keal] Harry was. Harry was bigger and played a little bigger. But this kid [Aiyuk] has a shot to be real good. That staff, they wished they could have had him for four years, just to see what he could have become.” 

— NFC South area scout

Player comp: Physically, he reminds us of Pittsburgh Steelers 2018 second-rounder James Washington. But in our eyes, Aiyuk has a chance to mirror the NFL career of Chris Godwin, who started a bit slowly but has developed into a Pro Bowl-level receiver by the end of his third season.

Expected draft range: Late first to early second round.

Previous prospect rankings: Nos. 100-91 | 90-81 | 80-71 | 70-66 | 65-61 | 60-56 | 55-51 | 50. DT Justin Madubuike | 49. CB Damon Arnette | 48. OT Ezra Cleveland | 47. WR KJ Hamler | 46. CB A.J. Terrell | 45. RB Cam Akers | 44. DL Ross Blacklock | 43. OT Josh Jones | 42. DT Jordan Elliott | 41. C Cesar Ruiz | 40. S Kyle Dugger | 39. EDGE Terrell Lewis | 38. WR Laviska Shenault Jr. | 37. S Grant Delpit | 36. Jonathan Taylor | 35. WR Brandon Aiyuk | 34. EDGE Zack Baun | 33. EDGE Yetur Gross-Matos | 32. CB Jeff Gladney | 31. QB Jordan Love | 30. CB Trevon Diggs | 29. EDGE A.J. Epenesa | 28. RB JK Dobbins | 27. WR Justin Jefferson | 26. WR Tee Higgins | 25. S Xavier McKinney | 24. WR Jalen Reagor | 23. CB Kristian Fulton | 22. RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire | 21. WR Denzel Mims | 20. LB Kenneth Murray | 19. RB D’Andre Swift | 18. QB Justin Herbert | 17. LB Patrick Queen | 16. WR Henry Ruggs III | 15. EDGE K’Lavon Chaisson | 14. WR Jerry Jeudy | 13. OT Mekhi Becton | 12. DT Javon Kinlaw | 11. OT Andrew Thomas | 10. OT Tristan Wirfs | 9. WR CeeDee Lamb | 8. OT Jedrick Wills Jr. | 7. CB CJ Henderson | 6. LB-S Isaiah Simmons | 5. DT Derrick Brown | 4. QB Tua Tagovailoa | 3. CB Jeffrey Okudah | 2. QB Joe Burrow | 1. Chase Young

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