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Deciphering the 49ers’ Brandon Aiyuk Conundrum: Extend Or Trade?

Feb 22, 2024 at 8:37 AM--

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A 49ers team, coming off a heartbreaking, close Super Bowl loss to a Patrick Mahomes-led Kansas City Chiefs, faces several tough salary cap decisions, including whether to extend one of their youngest and most talented players.

If you feel like you've been here before, it's because you have. Back in March 2020, roughly around the time the global economy closed down for a while, the 49ers traded DT DeForest Buckner to the Colts for a first-round pick, in lieu of extending him, allowing them to draft his replacement in the following draft (South Carolina's Javon Kinlaw), and extend a few other key players in Arik Armstead and Jimmie Ward. Fast forward to 2024, and the same conversations are now taking place over Brandon Aiyuk, as the decision over whether to extend the young WR looms heavy over the 49ers' offseason. What is the right course of action this time? Let's take a look.

Most of the argument against extending Aiyuk comes down to a couple of factors – one, the team's seemingly ever-increasing battle against the salary cap, particularly after big extensions for Nick Bosa and Deebo Samuel in the last few years, as well as big free-agent splurges like Javon Hargrave, and two, the idea that gaining draft capital in a situation where he could not easily be extended means that his production could be replaced.

Cap Considerations

The cap argument is relatively straightforward, and, understandably, people are concerned about this – for anyone who lived through the cap hell of the late '90s and early 00s, being fiscally responsible and allowing for moves to be made when they need to be made is of the utmost importance. It seems like the John Lynch regime has largely agreed with this proposal, dating back to not just the Buckner trade, but the backloading of contracts and use of cap devices to keep costs down, such as the double-bonus structure utilized in the Bosa and Samuel contracts. The fear, therefore, is that extending Aiyuk at a large rate could cause the team to lose out on a couple of free agents, and with extensions for Charvarius Ward, Deommodore Lenoir, and Talanoa Hufanga, among others, also lurking in the near future (as well as Brock Purdy becoming eligible for an extension in short order), it's fair to wonder how on earth Aiyuk may fit into the financial planning moving forward.

I'm no capologist, but I do know that the NFL salary cap is increasingly a suggestion rather than a rule for the teams that manage it effectively. One only has to look at the New Orleans Saints' increasing dexterity at somehow remaining under the cap every year, despite ostensibly being $80m over, to know that. I would have faith in this front office to find a way to keep the value players around if they deem it necessary and come up with the structure to do so. It's also fair to say that the oft-maligned Jed York has had the sense to use his deep pockets when necessary to guarantee large sums of upfront money to keep cap numbers down. The front office has been clever enough to pull any string to keep what they see as a contending team together, so I don't see cap as an issue, particularly with $38 million space to roll over (which always felt pre-planned, to me, to ensure an Aiyuk extension) and a few restructure or outright cut candidates.

Picks Make Prizes?

Those of us who love player evaluation, or the thought of being an armchair GM (and I'm just as guilty as any – I love me some Front Office Football 9), also wonder if it would be possible to replicate Aiyuk's production, "in the aggregate" to quote Moneyball, and replace him with one or a series of draft picks, having presumably obtained these from trading him away for a king's ransom. In my opinion, there are a few problems with this approach. One of them is the simplest one – while draft capital gives you more shots at the jackpot, the NFL Draft remains a crapshoot - there's no way to ascertain that what you are replacing your player with in the draft could give anywhere near the level of production that your current player does. For example, it would be harsh to call the aforementioned Buckner trade an outright failure, given that the team has largely remained competitive since, and even when it hasn't, it's hard to imagine that Buckner would've helped them overcome their issues, but there probably won't be a 49ers fan around the globe reading this that hasn't wondered what would've happened with Buckner next to Bosa for a few more years. You could even argue that the 49ers front office has never really let that one go either, particularly with Javon Hargrave being last season's marquee free agent.

I also feel that weakening your team in one area for draft picks largely almost locks you into a high pick at that position. As it stands at the moment, the 49ers have a few needs to address going into the draft, and adding a glaring hole to this team doesn't seem to be the best of moves, as even with multiple first-round picks, you've likely already shown your cards as to what you will do with at least one. I might be more inclined to show confidence here had the 49ers shown any history of drafting capable receivers outside of Aiyuk and Samuel, but arguably the best WR pick of the Shanahan era outside that has been Jauan Jennings, a 7th-round pick in 2020. Nearer the top of the draft, luminaries such as Dante Pettis, Jalen Hurd, and Danny Gray stick out. That example isn't illuminated to bash the 49ers drafting capabilities, but instead to show the intricacies of drafting at a premium skill position. Generally speaking, if you have drafted and developed your talent, hold onto it. That's particularly true of WRs in the Shanahan scheme, who often have a hard time adapting and have increasing demands placed on them – not least in the run-blocking game, where Aiyuk frequently excels.

Aiyuk himself

This scheme also makes quantifying Aiyuk's ceiling, and possibly his value, difficult. Per Pro Football Focus, Aiyuk only ranked 31st in the league in targets and tied for 24th in catches, yet still managed to come out with a top 10 rank in receiving yards. This is a little double-edged, as it suggests that Aiyuk is indeed precociously talented, but may actually be underutilized in this offense. Does this offense need two top-class WRs? Leaving aside that every team needs as many talented players as it can get, the key for the 49ers, and the 'secret sauce,' if you will, is the contrast between Samuel, the bully-ball, YAC physically dominant WR, and Aiyuk himself, who while physical, is much more capable of threatening deep while remaining a YAC demon and fantastic run blocker. They both have a very good all-round game, but I firmly believe the 49ers need both to continue to succeed, and watching any game where one or both is out for an extended period likely backs that up, too.

So, let's say we've concluded that, yes, the 49ers should extend Aiyuk – do we think he wants to stay? A few surly comments following the Super Bowl, plus the latest social media melodrama, suggest that he may not want to, but I would urge everyone to ignore the social media noise. Outside of Black Mirror, who you do and don't follow, or what you say on the platforms, has very little to do with what you do in your life. The 49ers have had this drama once already with Deebo Samuel, who is now very much in the fold and producing well for the team. I don't have a crystal ball, but I see a lot of similarities in that situation. There will be drama, there will be ups and downs, there will be lots and lots of bad reporting and inside sources, but ultimately, I think a deal gets done and we see Aiyuk on the field in red and gold for many seasons to come. That's what's best for business.
  • Written by:
    UK Niner and writer, following scores since 1998, watching games since 2005. Two visits to SF (2015 and 2017) and counting. Claim to fame: saw Blaine Gabbert win a game as a starting quarterback.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


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