Why Ricky Pearsall? 49ers describe him like they did Brandon Aiyuk in 2020

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — “Fire pick.”

General managers and head coaches get a lot of congratulatory texts following draft selections, but the one John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan got on Thursday night stood out because it was from Brandon Aiyuk.

The San Francisco 49ers receiver, whose name was bandied about as a trade candidate throughout the first day of the draft, mentored Ricky Pearsall, the team’s surprise first-round pick, when Pearsall was a freshman at Arizona State in 2019. Aiyuk let the 49ers know he liked the move, and he also got on the phone with Pearsall after the selection.

“He was telling me over and over again: ‘You’re a first-rounder. Soak it up,’” Persall said in a video call with reporters.

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Although the 49ers got a slew of phone calls about Aiyuk before and during the draft — more on those below — he remained a 49er at the end of the day. And his text to Shanahan and Lynch suggested that relations between the team and receiver aren’t quite as icy as they appear. Indeed, as the draft began on Thursday, there was a sense that progress was being made on a long-term contract extension.

“I know we’re continuing to have positive talks with BA,” Lynch said. “And we are really efforting to get something done with him. We’re excited about continuing down that path.”

While Aiyuk was pleased with the pick, 49ers fans seemed puzzled.

No pre-draft publication listed Pearsall, who transferred to Florida in 2021, as a possible first-round selection, and there were more highly touted players, including at receiver, available when the 49ers took him at pick No. 31. Pearsall didn’t visit team headquarters in the run-up to the draft, which is usually the case with early 49ers draft picks. In fact, he said his only involvement was at the Senior Bowl in January when he had what he termed a speed-dating session with them along with several other teams.

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In touting the choice, Shanahan and Lynch sounded a lot like they did four years ago when they traded up, from No. 31 to No. 25, to select Aiyuk. At the time Shanahan said he liked that Aiyuk can play every receiver position.

“He can run every single route and he can do it outside the numbers and he can do it inside the numbers,” Shanahan said in 2020. “He can play the X, he can play the Z, he can play the F. He’s got the speed to get on top. He’s got the quickness to play in the slot. He’s got the toughness to go over in the middle.”

He had a similar assessment of Pearsall: “He can separate down the field, he can separate underneath. He’s got really good hands. Extremely smart, very well developed. You could tell he was — I guess I’d call it a gym rat or something because he was working on his routes and putting in a lot of hours. And you could see it on tape.”

More than anything else, Shanahan seeks receivers who can separate, which was Persall’s top skill at Florida. He had 65 catches for 965 yards last season while also serving as the Gators’ return man. That could be one of his rookie roles with the 49ers, who lost 2023 return man Ray-Ray McCloud III in free agency.

Of course, Shanahan also cited separation skills with another receiver he fell for, Dante Pettis, a 2018 second-rounder who lasted only two and half seasons in San Francisco. Shanahan, however, on Thursday noted Pearsall’s toughness and contact courage, which is something Pettis lacked.

The top play on Pearsall’s highlight reel, in fact, is a one-handed snag against Charlotte in which he got sandwiched between two hard-charging defenders. Lynch and Shanahan said there were plenty of those types of plays on Pearsall’s film. And while Pearsall isn’t a Deebo Samuel-like tackle breaker, he did have 374 yards after the catch last season, according to Pro Football Focus.

“He makes guys tackle him,” Shanahan said. “You watch so many guys and they get what’s there and they go down. … You kind of want to not have to ask guys to fight for every yard. You’d like to have to pull them back.”

As for Aiyuk and trade discussions, Day 1 of the draft went a lot like it did two years ago when Samuel was agitating for a contract extension.

Back then, the New York Jets were willing to give the 49ers the No. 10 pick plus a Day 3 selection in exchange for Samuel and the 49ers’ second-round pick, a package that didn’t tempt the 49ers. The Detroit Lions also made an offer the 49ers found even more underwhelming.

The team took several phone calls for Aiyuk in the run-up to the draft with a few more coming on Thursday. None, however, came close to the mid-first-round selection the 49ers needed to seriously consider moving their top wideout. According to a league source, the best offer the 49ers got was for a second-round pick. Another team picking in the middle of the draft discussed an Aiyuk trade that involved swapping first-round picks, though there was never any formal offer.

Of course, the fact that the 49ers used their top pick on a receiver means that trade speculation won’t go away, and neither Lynch nor Shanahan would rule out the possibility of moving Aiyuk or Samuel on Friday when Day 2 gets underway. However, drafting Pearsall seemed to be done with an eye toward 2025 when Jauan Jennings is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent and when a massive salary boost for quarterback Brock Purdy could prompt the 49ers to part with a high-priced player like Samuel.

Pearsall, who grew up in Chandler, Ariz., said he’s never met Purdy, who’s from nearby Gilbert. But he said he remembers playing Purdy’s team in high school in 2017.

“I’ll be the first to admit it,” Persall said. “We played each other. I think he put 70 on my team. I remember him because he was in the end zone a lot.”

Pearsall was good that day. He had eight catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns. Purdy, however, had four passing touchdowns in the 70-24 win.

(Photo: Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)

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