The 49ers would love to retain Brandon Aiyuk for the long run, but ESPN doesn't think it feasible and is predicting a blockbuster trade instead.
One of the inherent problems in the salary cap era of the NFL is that it becomes increasingly difficult for good teams to retain their good talent.
The San Francisco 49ers are a good team with a lot of good talent. And over the last few years, most of that good talent has ended up taking home top-end money. Most recently, All-Pro defensive end Nick Bosa ended up with the biggest contract awarded to a non-quarterback after leading the NFL in sacks in 2022 (18.5) and being named the Defensive Player of the Year.
The primary reason why the Niners can have so many big-money contracts is because their starting quarterback, Brock Purdy, is making less than $1 million per season on his extremely affordable rookie deal.
Purdy will likely seek a hefty pay increase after the 2024 season, though. And that year is important to note for the subject of this query, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.
ESPN predicts 49ers trade Brandon Aiyuk this offseason
According to Over the Cap, the Niners are projected to have less than $1.5 million in cap space in 2024.
That's not a lot, and despite picking up Aiyuk's fifth-year option at a fully guaranteed $14 million, it's not hard to see why San Francisco might explore trading him after what's turning into a career year for the former first-round draft choice.
That's what ESPN's Dan Graziano predicted the 49ers would do:
"The 49ers are currently projected over or right up against next year's cap and are already paying out big money to Deebo Samuel at the wide receiver position. And that's not to mention top-of-market money at tight end, left tackle, linebacker … basically everywhere but quarterback.
Aiyuk will surely be a candidate for an extension, but so will a lot of guys in San Francisco. ... The Niners won't be able to afford to keep everybody, which means Aiyuk could potentially be a trade candidate in the offseason if an extension doesn't happen."
Graziano also pointed out how the market for wide receivers is likely to be wholly reset when new deals for superstars like Ja'Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson and others get done.
That could easily make Aiyuk entirely unaffordable from the Niners' vantage point.
Would the 49ers trade Brandon Aiyuk?
For the most part, San Francisco has a history of rewarding its top performers and figuring out a way to navigate the salary cap by engineering extensions and restructures with other players. Along with Purdy, it's one of the ways the 49ers have kept a roster largely comprised of Pro Bowlers and All-Pros at every level.
However, the Niners do have a precedent of trading away a superstar if the two sides can't agree on an extension amount.
Merely months prior to Aiyuk being drafted, San Francisco traded away star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts in exchange for a first-round pick, one that was used on defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw, after Buckner and the 49ers could reach an agreement on a new contract.
Could Aiyuk be trending in that direction?
It's hard to see how the Niners could afford to keep him and the remaining cast of highly paid stars. So, if they're not looking to let him walk in free agency in 2025 for next to nothing in return aside from a compensatory draft pick, trading him a year too soon does make some sense.
Even though it would be tough to see happen.