The Brandon Aiyuk trade conversation has gotten rolling as the dust settles on free agency and the NFL draft approaches. Since San Francisco would likely be aiming to move the WR by Draft Day, the discussions about team fits and potential trade partners will ramp up substantially.

Jacksonville has come up as a potential suitor after they lost Calvin Ridley in free agency. Pittsburgh has also become a popular hypothetical destination after Aiyuk fed trade speculation with a tweet to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin on March 19. It was Aiyuk’s first tweet since April 30, 2023.

The trade talks aren’t unfounded or ridiculous. Aiyuk is entering the fifth and final year of his rookie contract, and it’s unlikely he’ll be willing to suit up without a long-term extension. San Francisco also doesn’t have a ton of wiggle room under the cap this year. There are ways they can structure the contract to make it more affordable in 2024 than his $14.2 million fifth-year option. More on this in a bit.

However, it’s not a slam dunk the 49ers get a deal done. They’ll have a value in mind and if Aiyuk’s camp wants something more than that number, then San Francisco will have to trade its No. 1 wide receiver.

To be clear, the 49ers don’t want to trade him. They’ve said as much publicly any time anyone with ears and a pulse is in the vicinity. All of the reasons pundits and writers and podcasters believe Aiyuk is a fit for one team are also reasons he’s a fit for the 49ers. He’s still just 26, has great hands, explosive athleticism and a dynamic route tree that makes him one of the toughest covers in the sport. Aiyuk has also become a dominant run blocker which will help his case with every offensive coach in the NFL.

This is why the 49ers will be working to ensure they’re locking up Aiyuk beyond the 2024 campaign. He’s their future on offense alongside quarterback Brock Purdy. Letting Aiyuk walk ensures a nearly bare offensive cupboard for their newly-minted franchise QB by the time 2026 rolls around. It’s hard to envision many scenarios where the 49ers are letting Aiyuk get out the door, particularly because finding players like him isn’t easy. The Titans jettisoning WR AJ Brown during the 2022 draft is instructive in this case. That’s a scenario the 49ers will want to avoid.

So, let’s get back to the money.

It’s easy to point to all of the high-dollar contracts of left tackle Trent Williams, tight end George Kittle, wide receiver Deebo Samuel and running back Christian McCaffrey and conclude the 49ers simply cannot pay another wide receiver. Giving Aiyuk $28 million per year means they’re giving their top two receivers nearly $52 million in average annual value. That’s a lot!

For this season though the deal could be structured in a way that actually saves the 49ers money against the cap this year. They could potentially cut Aiyuk’s $14.2 million cap hit in half to save money now while pushing his bigger cap hits into the future when the cap keeps climbing and some of the other sizable contracts come off their books.

There’s a harsh reality that comes with this though. That group of offensive weapons featuring Willams, Kittle, Samuel and McCaffrey may not be in the 49ers’ long-term plans. San Francisco has to start gearing up for the future where Aiyuk figures to be a major player for them entering his prime while Kittle, Samuel and McCaffrey all clear 30-years old and Williams pushes 40.

So as the trade rumors and speculation fly, and Aiyuk is lauded as a fit for teams because of his ability and age, the 49ers will be aiming to pay him for all of those exact same reasons. There’s a definite scenario where the two sides don’t come to a deal, but the 49ers will be bending over backward to try and ensure a key piece of their future is locked up long-term.

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