The San Francisco 49ers are now just days away from opening their 2022 NFL season vs. the Chicago Bears. The team that was just minutes away from a Super Bowl trip at the end of last season made plenty of changes this offseason that they hope will help get them over the hump in 2022 and back to the Big Game. While most will focus on new quarterback Trey Lance as the 49ers’ X-factor this year, the player who could make the difference between playing and sitting at home on February 12, 2023, is actually wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.

49ers’ X-factor: Brandon Aiyuk

The San Francisco 49ers officially gave the team over to first-year starting signal-caller and second-year NFL player Trey Lance for the 2022 NFL season. Last year’s offensive leader, Jimmy Garoppolo, is still on the roster, but the entire organization has made it crystal clear that Lance is the man.

What we know about the 49ers' offense heading into the 2022 NFL season is that the running game will be among the best in the league. Whether it’s Elijah Mitchell, Jeff Wilson Jr., third-round pick Tyrion Davis-Price, or undrafted rookie Jordan Mason toting the rock at running back, Brandon Shanahan will scheme up incredible running plays all season.

Add to that Lance’s own scrambling ability and unconventional hand-off options like WR Deeb Samuel, FB Kyle Juszczyk, or even TE George Kittle once in a while, and the 49ers should be one of the best teams in the league this year on the ground.

Unfortunately for the 49ers and their fans, it’s the 2022 NFL season, not the 1972 NFL season.

A strong running game is a great thing to have in the modern NFL. But teams don’t run to championships anymore. They throw for them.

Trey Lance could be the second coming of Steve Young, but if he can’t pass at least as well as Jimmy G, the 49ers are going to have problems. That’s why Brandon Aiyuk is the 49ers' X-factor this season.

After putting up 65 catches for 1,192 yards and eight touchdowns in his final season at Arizona State, San Francisco made Aiyuk 25th pick of the 2020 NFL Draft.

The first-round pick came on strong in his rookie season and had a solid inaugural campaign. Aiyuk caught 60 balls for 748 yards and five touchdowns in 12 games. With the emergence of 2019 second-round pick Deebo Samuel, the 49ers expected to have a young WR duo the likes of which the Bay Area hasn’t seen since the 1980s with Jerry Rice and John Taylor.

Year 2 didn’t work out as expected, though, for Brandon Aiyuk. The second-year wideout struggled throughout the season and, playing in five more games than the season before, put up an almost identical stat line of 56 receptions, 826 yards, and five TDs.

For Trey Lance to have success in his first season as a starter, he needs as many pass-catching options as possible. Samuel and Kittle are the no-doubt Nos. 1 and 2 options, but a reliable or possibly even explosive No. 3 would give Lance weapons that most QBs don’t have heading into the 2022 NFL season.

Brandon Aiyuk as the 49ers' X-factor doesn’t seem that far-fetched after the preseason either. The third-year wideout was the most talked-about player in 49ers camp and is near the top of most pundits' list as a third-year WR breakout candidate.

If Aiyuk does become the type of first-round receiver the team thought it drafted in 2020, watch out. He could be the difference-maker who gets San Francisco past the NFC Championship Game this season and into the Super Bowl.