49ers' YAC Bros the latest addition to Bay Area's fraternal scene

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The Bay Area has a history of unrelated brothers leaving a lasting imprint on its sports scene.

The Oakland Athletics once captivated baseball with the power of the Bash Brothers, headed up by Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. The Golden State Warriors built a dynasty on the backs of the Splash Brothers, Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Now the San Francisco 49ers would like you to meet the YAC Bros, a group of skill position players making their mark by running past, around and -- most importantly -- over any defender standing in their way.

While it's undoubtedly a catchy name, the Niners' edition has a long way to go before it can be mentioned in the same breath as the A's and Warriors' fraternity.

How far? When Niners receiver Deebo Samuel first mentioned the nickname publicly, welcoming rookie Brandon Aiyuk to the club along with himself and tight end George Kittle, that message apparently wasn't communicated to Kittle.

"Am I a part of the YAC Bros?" asked Kittle. "I didn't get a formal invitation or a T-shirt or anything. I don't even have the Deebo shirt, so a little salty about that."

Official membership registration issues aside, YAC is more than just an acronym used to create catchy nicknames and merchandise. For the 49ers, it's the foundation on which their offense has been built.

To clear up any confusion, the Niners want YAC by the boatload from both of its definitions -- yards after catch and yards after contact. Seven games into the 2020 season, the Niners rank first in the NFL in both categories with 682 yards after contact and 1,086 yards after the catch. Since the start of 2019, San Francisco also tops the league in those statistics.

With coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch calling the shots, that's not a coincidence. It is, however, something that's become more of a priority each year since they took over in 2017.

"That was something we kind of valued was the ability to run after the catch and then we probably took it a step further," Lynch said. "It's something we talked a lot about early but we probably started talking a little bit more as some of our system evolved and then we started seeing some people who did it really well."

At the outset of every offensive meeting, Shanahan brings up the No. 1 fundamental of YAC: the drop step. If that sounds like a basketball term left to the sweet feet of guys like Hakeem Olajuwon or Tim Duncan, it's because it is.

Shanahan and his staff used to tell players to "turn in your shadow," a way of conveying the importance of getting upfield. They soon realized that sometimes the sun would be in different places during practice which made it more confusing. So, they borrowed from their basketball brethren.

Put simply, when a pass-catcher gets the ball, he plants one foot in the ground and immediately pivots the opposite direction, forcing his body to turn up the field as fast as possible.

For a good example of what it means, the Niners always point to wideout Kendrick Bourne's third-and-16 catch and drop step for a key first down late in a fourth quarter win against the Rams last year.

"[It's] just the fastest way to go North and South," Shanahan said. "It's something we preach to everybody, regardless of what your skill set is and I think our guys really have taken ownership of it. They watch each other do it, and I think they kind of all feed off each other. We've got some talented, physical guys who don't mess around."

Therein lies the other pillar to the Tao of YAC, especially the contact version: A great drop step doesn't mean much if it's not paired with the mentality required to fearlessly take on any approaching defender with the intention to deliver rather than receive a hit.

When the 49ers drafted Kittle in 2017, they believed in his potential as a pass-catcher but knew they would have to develop it. Tight ends coach Jon Embree immediately began hammering home the importance of running with reckless abandon, noting that opposing defenders will start taking "creative angles" once you've established that you're not only unafraid of contact but actually enjoy it.

"YAC is a mindset," Kittle said. "It's something that coach Shanahan and our coaching staff has been preaching ever since I was a rookie."

The emphasis on YAC allows Shanahan to dial up plays that protect the quarterback and make the offensive line's job a bit easier with the ball coming out quick while also still allowing for big plays. It's why the 49ers can rank 30th in air yards per target (6.55) but ninth in yards per catch (11.83) and explains how Samuel's average depth of target on 11 catches the past two weeks was negative-4 yards but still averaged 11.9 yards per reception.

"You've got to be able to run pretty fearless," Shanahan said. "If you're running around looking at who's going to hit you, it's really hard to attack and get up the field. ... The best guys after the catch are the guys who don't mess around, they just get right up the field and get whatever yards they can. I feel like we've got a bunch of those guys."

Kittle's emergence, particularly in 2018 when he racked up a then-record 855 yards after the catch, further opened Shanahan and Lynch's eyes to the benefits of players who can create extra yards. It helped lead to the choice of Samuel in the second-round of the 2019 NFL draft and to moving up in the first-round to choose Aiyuk this year.

"When one guy does it well you say, 'Wow, that's pretty effective,'" Lynch said. "Let's go try to find a guy like Deebo and then you see Aiyuk, you know, our eyes kind of gravitate. We have kind of arrived at something."

At Arizona State last season, Aiyuk averaged 10.9 yards after the catch, highest among all rookie wideouts to enter the league this year. For Aiyuk, it came natural but he learned soon upon arrival in San Francisco that YAC isn’t just a statistic, it’s one of the 49ers’ family values.

"Whether it be catching an in-breaking route, sticking that foot in the ground and getting vertical or catching the ball where your back is to the defense and you're drop stepping and getting vertical right away -- those are kind of things you don't normally hear a lot," Aiyuk said. "I didn't hear that a lot in college, it was just kind of something that you did but here it's just something that is emphasized and it's coached."