National Football League
Ricky Pearsall gets prime-time audition with Brandon Aiyuk’s absence from 49ers’ OTAs
National Football League

Ricky Pearsall gets prime-time audition with Brandon Aiyuk’s absence from 49ers’ OTAs

Updated May. 23, 2024 11:24 a.m. ET

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy understands there's no one-to-one replacement for the team's No. 1 receiver last season in Brandon Aiyuk.

The Arizona State product led the 49ers in receptions (75), receiving yards (1,342) and finished tied for first in receiving touchdowns (7) in 2023, earning second-team All-Pro honors. San Francisco picked up the fifth-year option of Aiyuk's rookie contract that will pay him $14.1 million in 2024. 

Aiyuk's representation and the 49ers are currently in contract talks on a new deal that could pay him near the top of the receiver market, north of $25 million annually. So far, he's not reported to voluntary, organized team activities (OTAs).

"It's extremely important," Purdy told reporters this week, when asked about San Francisco reaching a long-term deal with his favorite target. "He is a playmaker. Love throwing to him. Love B.A. as a person. So yeah, it's definitely important."


San Francisco drafted Aiyuk's one-time college teammate at Arizona State in Ricky Pearsall with the team's No. 31 overall pick in part as a hedge in case negotiations between the team and the Pro Bowl receiver sour, and the 49ers must trade him elsewhere. Both Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel had been the subject of trade rumors in the lead-up to the draft, but San Francisco general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan appear amenable to keeping them on the roster for now.

Samuel, 28, still has two years remaining on a three-year, $71.55 million deal he signed in 2022. With receiver salaries skyrocketing, San Francisco must take a short-term and long-term view to how they build the receiver room each season. According to Spotrac, the 49ers lead the league with $48.6 million allocated to receivers for the 2024 season. 

Along with Pearsall, the 49ers also drafted Jacob Cowing in the fourth round of this year's draft. At 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds with good speed and polished route running ability, Pearsall provides San Francisco with a receiver with a similar skill set to Aiyuk. 

San Francisco receivers coach Leonard Hankerson said Pearsall is taking advantage of more opportunities with the starters because Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings are currently not attending OTAs. Jennings has not signed his one-year, $4.9 million restricted free-agent tender. 

"It's good for Ricky because he's getting a ton of reps," Hankerson told reporters this week. "But it's also bad for us because that's two guys who know how we do things around here, and he's not able to see those guys do it. That's added reps for another chance to learn." 

Hankerson said things that stood out for Pearsall during the draft evaluation process were his toughness, movement skills and ability to consistently create separation. He said that Pearsall and the other receivers have been in the building every day from morning until evening since they arrived two weeks ago, putting in the work to get up to speed in a new offense. 

"Everybody wants it to happen overnight, but that's not going to be the case," Hankerson said. "It's going to take time to get a full understanding how to get open against this leverage against this defense. … But once it does click, he's got the ability to go out there and make some plays for us." 

Pearsall got a head start on making the jump to the NFL by working out in the same group with Miami Dolphins electric receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle before the draft. Brandon White, founder of the Receiver Factory who led those workouts, said Pearsall more than held his own. 

"Anybody watching the tape can observe his route running ability and his cutting ability when he's right next to two of the best guys in the NFL," White told FOX Sports. "He's really good. As far as his route running was concerned, I didn't see anything that he missed on, coming out of his breaks. I didn't see anything that he didn't understand. 

"He's very sudden. He's very sharp and it shows. I'm not saying anything that you guys didn't see right next to Tyreek Hill and Waddle. I'm very high on Ricky out of all the guys I work with."

White said that Pearsall has been working with him since transferring from Arizona State to Florida after his junior season, and he helped him in the lead-up to the draft.

White played receiver for Wisconsin in college and has been training receivers for the last seven years based in his home state of Florida. White regularly works with some of the top receivers in the NFL, including Stefon Diggs, Justin Jefferson, J'Marr Chase, Calvin Ridley, Hill, Watkins and Pearsall's new teammate in San Francisco in Samuel. 

"He's (Pearsall) actually a very, very mature young man," White said. "There's a bunch of things I can say about his game, but I think his mental approach and his mindset to just try to elevate himself — he has a real focus and hunger when he's out there. He doesn't like to mess up a rep. He had a bunch of good questions and wanted feedback on how it's going to pertain to the game. So, I just like his mentality.

"He surprised me. Everything about Pearsall impressed me. We see guys come in all the time, and we work with a lot of guys. It's not just one thing, it's several different levels of things that jumped out. My overall opinion of the young man is I think he's the real deal."

The 49ers hope extra reps combined with Pearsall's talent as a route runner and student of the game leads to production in his rookie season. Pearsall was one of the highest athletic testers among the receiver prospects in this year's draft.

In a year when the 49ers are chasing a Super Bowl, it makes sense to try to keep Aiyuk around beyond this season for San Francisco, despite the percolating rumors that the team might be willing to move both Aiyuk and Samuel.

However, the development of Pearsall and other young receivers on San Francisco's roster provides a backup plan, should either prove too costly now, or in the future. 

Eric D. Williams has reported on the NFL for more than a decade, covering the Los Angeles Rams for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Chargers for ESPN and the Seattle Seahawks for the Tacoma News Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at @eric_d_williams.


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