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49ers insider: If Brandon Aiyuk is traded, it will be before the draft

Mar 20, 2024 at 10:53 AM

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Brandon Aiyuk appears open to the possibility of playing elsewhere in 2024. If the San Francisco 49ers can't negotiate a favorable long-term deal with their star receiver, he knows someone else will.

However, the 49ers primarily aim to retain Aiyuk for the long haul. The team exercised the fifth-year option on his contract but seeks to secure an extension before he retakes the field. General manager John Lynch recently praised Aiyuk, calling him one of his "favorite guys around the building."

"He's a competitor. He's a warrior," Lynch added. "He plays with such physicality, also with grace, in the way some of the positions his body can get into. And then he's got a flair for making plays when [they] matter most, and he's served us very well as a franchise."

Recent reports suggest that the Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers have expressed interest in acquiring Aiyuk. While the 49ers are always open to listening to offers for their players, any potential offer for the team's leading receiver in 2023 would need to blow them away.

In the case of the Jaguars, the 49ers reportedly sought the No. 17 overall pick and wide receiver Zay Jones. It's unclear if the team's asks were limited to those two things. Apparently, Jacksonville deemed this asking price too steep for a player they would also need to sign to a substantial contract.

A newer report states that the Steelers are exploring the possibility of a trade for Aiyuk. Aiyuk himself fueled speculation by casually tweeting at Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, suggesting he might be open to the idea.

As was the case with Deebo Samuel in 2022, if the 49ers don't trade Aiyuk before the draft, it's unlikely they will do so afterward. Any compensation obtained after the draft would consist of picks in 2025, which wouldn't benefit the team's immediate needs. After all, the 49ers are priming themselves for another Super Bowl run, which will be more challenging without Aiyuk or a comparable replacement.

"Just go back two years to when Deebo Samuel was agitating for a trade," Matt Barrows wrote in his recent mailbag for The Athletic. "The 49ers kept their phone lines open before, and especially during, the draft to see what kind of offers Samuel would bring. They got draft-day proposals from the New York Jets and Detroit Lions, but the 49ers didn't budge. They were solid offers (especially the Jets') but the 49ers needed to be blown away to let go of Samuel, who was coming off his incredible 2021 campaign.

"I think a similar scenario is in play for Aiyuk, who has excellent chemistry with Brock Purdy: The 49ers will listen to offers but it will take something monumental to let him go."

The Steelers hold the No. 20 overall pick in the upcoming draft, and acquiring Aiyuk would likely require additional assets. If no trade materializes by the end of the 2024 NFL Draft, the 49ers will have more leverage in the contract negotiations with the receiver.

Typically, the team finalizes long-term deals closer to training camp, which begins at the end of July. In the case of Nick Bosa last year, negotiations nearly seeped into the regular season. However, the two sides managed to get a deal done before Week 1.

For those wondering, the extra $18 million of cap relief that will come after June 1 from defensive tackle Arik Armstead's release isn't an immediate factor in the negotiations with Aiyuk. The receiver is under contract through the 2025 season, with his guaranteed $14.124 million salary already counting against this year's cap. The 49ers can actually bring down that cap hit and save money with a long-term deal by reducing the player's base salary for 2024 and providing a signing bonus, of which the cap hit will be spread through the length of the contract (maybe more, through void years).

While nothing prevents the 49ers from signing Aiyuk today, the team has historically taken a deliberate approach to significant contract negotiations. No one was expecting such a move to occur before free agency.

"The 49ers firmly, firmly believe he is in their plans," NFL insider Ian Rapoport stated earlier this month. "I would expect them to get to work on a new deal for him, probably after free agency."
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