Super Bowl LVIII - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs
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Walking through the scenarios that would lead the Niners to moving on from their star receiver makes sense, but it’s a difficult decision.

It’ll be another fascinating offseason surrounding the San Francisco 49ers. They have 18 unrestricted free agents, a handful of extension candidates, and a few more players who could be cap casualties.

Extending Brandon Aiyuk is at the top of the list. He’s the best receiver on the team and, volume aside, one of the five to seven best wideouts in the NFL. Players at Aiyuk’s position in recent history have asked for a trade after they couldn’t reach an agreement with their teams at the time. Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, and A.J. Brown were all moved.

Aiyuk is fresh off a career season where he came close to 1,400 yards receiving despite playing in a star-studded offense where he wasn’t the “primary” target like most wideouts who accomplish that many yards are. It would be pure speculation to project Aiyuk’s contract. We don’t know how the 49ers value him in relation to the wide receiver market and his production.

A team-friendly deal feels out of the question, but making him the highest-paid receiver in the NFL isn’t a feasible option. What may surprise most is that extending Aiyuk this offseason will help the 49ers’ salary cap situation in the immediate future.

According to Over the Cap, the Niners would save $10.39 million in 2024 by extending Aiyuk. So, in theory, extending Aiyuk could allow you to re-sign a couple of your in-house free agents or go outside of the building and plug a hole at cornerback or offensive line.

It’s a tricky spot, as the 49ers have historically made their lucrative extensions cheaper in earlier years and “kicked the can down the road” to make that player affordable. An Aiyuk extension may be cheap in 2024, but if Brock Purdy has another year as he did in 2023, an inevitable contract extension is waiting in the wings next offseason.

There are numerous ways for the 49ers to create and save money this offseason, and we’ll get into those this week. Let’s stick with Aiyuk for now. ESPN’s Dan Graziano believes the “most likely” outcome is that he’s dealt:

The Aiyuk trade scenario: Now, if the 49ers can’t reach an agreement with Aiyuk on an extension and end up having to trade him, they would save the full $14.124 million of his 2024 salary. In our ongoing example, that would put them nearly $58 million under the cap and likely arm them with an additional high draft pick (maybe even a first- or second-rounder) from such a trade. Aiyuk would surely be missed, but with all of the massive cap numbers the Niners are projecting for their veterans in 2024 and in future years, at some point they’re going to need to move on from some of their stars. If they can get a first-rounder back in an Aiyuk trade and use it to replace him at wide receiver, that might actually be the best way to go.

The last time the 49ers traded their upcoming star player in exchange for a 1st round pick, his replacement failed to live up to expectations, and it took a couple of seasons to wind up paying that position.

At some point, you’re going to have to pay a receiver. But help along the offensive line — at multiple spots — and at cornerback, perhaps safety, and linebacker all must be addressed. That’s why Graziano believes Aiyuk is a goner:

The most likely outcome: To me, the most likely way this shakes out is Aiyuk ends up getting traded to a team where he’s the clear No. 1 wideout and where he can get the extension he wants, leaving the Niners to draft his replacement in the first round. That’s the cleanest way for them to address all of their other needs. I see San Francisco extending Hufanga and coming to some sort of arrangements with Juszczyk and Greenlaw that keep them both around. That leaves the Niners to run it back with the same basic core, some upgrades in key spots and Aiyuk cheering them on from afar.

It’s a brutal business. You develop a player into the exact mold you want. He does everything you ask, and in a way that forces him to drop his ego — knowing that there could have been 1,300-yard seasons before 2023. Yet, a trade might make the most sense when it’s time to reward him.

The 49ers are in an ideal draft position to select a receiver who could help right away, given the strength of the class. But Aiyuk is a unique talent who is just scratching the surface of his ceiling. It’s a decision I do not envy, but it doesn’t seem like a difficult choice.

There’s an obvious rapport between Aiyuk and Purdy. Plus, there’s a lack of foresight when you think about the decisions that go into trading Aiyuk. The “core” of George Kittle, Deebo Samuel, Christian McCaffrey, and Kyle Juszczyk will all be free agents after the 2025 season. Not only that, but each of them will already be or entering their 30s.

And that’s before you get into the lengthy injury history — something that doesn’t exist when discussing Aiyuk, who turns 26 in a month.

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