Brandon Aiyuk

Aiyuk headlines 49ers' list of NFL offseason priorities

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SANTA CLARA — This one might take a while, but the 49ers’ top offseason priority is to sign wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk to a long-term contract.

The goal, of course, is to come to an arrangement that makes both sides happy.

But if history is any indicator, it might take a few months of mutual discontent before the sides get to that point.

“You have to prioritize all these things,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said on Tuesday. “Of course you want a guy like Brandon Aiyuk to be a part of (your team) going forward.”

The 49ers picked up Aiyuk’s fifth-year option a year ago at a one-year, fully guaranteed salary of $14.1 million for the 2024 season.

With a lucrative contract extension that will pay him in excess of $20 million annually, his cap number could actually drop next year due to a smaller base salary coupled with a large chunk of guaranteed money spread out over the life of the deal.

With all their big-money players, the 49ers' front office faces some challenges.

“(The) team is comprised of guys, veterans who've been paid very well, of guys who want to be paid very well,” Lynch said. “We’ve got one guy on our team who is pretty prominent who can't be paid real well right now because the CBA doesn't allow it. So it's all one big puzzle.”

That player is quarterback Brock Purdy, a two-year veteran who is in line to become the highest-paid player on the team a year from now. The 49ers and Purdy’s representation are not allowed to touch his rookie contract until he has finished his third NFL season.

Purdy’s contract situation should make it possible to have another highly compensated player on the payroll.

The 49ers have plenty of experience over the past four years with contract extensions to retain their top players on second contracts, such as George Kittle, Fred Warner, Deebo Samuel and Nick Bosa.

Arriving at such a contract for Aiyuk likely will take some time. Aiyuk probably will not take part in the 49ers’ offseason program as he awaits an acceptable offer from the 49ers.

Kittle, Warner, Samuel and Bosa eventually signed their big contracts in July, near the opening of training camp.

Here are some of the 49ers’ priorities to accomplish in free agency before they decide what to do with their scheduled 11 NFL Draft picks from April 25 to 27:

Defensive line

Nick Bosa, Arik Armstead, Javon Hargrave, Drake Jackson and Kalia Davis are under contract. That’s really about it among the 49ers’ defensive linemen.

So the 49ers have a lot of work ahead of them to fill out their depth chart. They annually have emphasized bringing in a lot of NFL-caliber players for training camp.

It seems unlikely the 49ers will retain midseason acquisitions Chase Young, Randy Gregory or Sebastian Joseph-Day.

But for the right prices, the 49ers almost certainly would be interested in bringing back Clelin Ferrell, Javon Kinlaw and Kevin Givens.

There typically has been interest around the league in 49ers defensive linemen who hit free agency, so director of pro personnel RJ Gillen will be entrusted to find some under-the-radar veterans who immediately can fit into the 49ers’ system.

Nickel back

Cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Deommodore Lenoir proved they are keepers.

The 49ers' pass defense was very good this season. They were the only team in the NFL with more interceptions (22) than touchdown passes allowed (20).

San Francisco's only real issue was at the nickel back position.

After swinging and missing on free-agent pickup Isaiah Oliver, the 49ers decided to move Lenoir inside in passing situations. But that meant they had to insert Ambry Thomas on the outside in nickel situations.

After teams repeatedly targeted Thomas with success, the 49ers decided that was not the best solution, either.

Finally, in Super Bowl LVIII, the 49ers benched Thomas. Ward and Lenoir remained at cornerback the entire game and midseason pickup Logan Ryan played nickel back.

Shoring up that all-important position is one of the keys for the 2024 season.

Offensive line

It is possible the 49ers open next season without a newcomer among the team’s starting offensive line.

But they have to address the line to bring in competition and/or depth at some of those spots.

Three of the positions appear to be set with left tackle Trent Williams, left guard Aaron Banks and center Jake Brendel.

Veteran Jon Feliciano, scheduled for unrestricted free agency, ended up working his way into the starting lineup ahead of Spencer Burford late in the season.

When Feliciano was injured in the Super Bowl, Burford entered the game. He made a critical blown assignment on one of the key plays of the game — a third-and-4 situation in overtime in which he did not block Kansas City’s Chris Jones. That allowed Jones to pressure Purdy into an incomplete pass. The play as designed was perfect to beat the Chiefs’ defense, but Purdy was unable to deliver a catchable pass.

Does Feliciano, who went to social media the next morning to criticize Burford, fit into the team’s dynamic? He later apologized. Or can Burford make the necessary improvements to lock down that position in his third season?

Right tackle Colton McKivitz probably is in line to remain as a starter. He virtually shut out Detroit’s Aidan Hutchinson in the NFC Championship Game and did a commendable job in the Super Bowl against George Karlaftis.

Whether it comes in free agency or the draft or both, the 49ers need to bring in more offensive linemen to get ready for game action.

Wide receiver

The 49ers have a shortage of wide receivers, too. More than likely, they will have to wait for the draft to build some depth.

Samuel is under contract for another two seasons. And Aiyuk’s situation is fluid. Jauan Jennings is scheduled to be a restricted free agent. After his impressive Super Bowl, some teams with cap space could sign him to a nice offer sheet.

Jennings had just 19 receptions for 265 yards and one touchdown during the regular season. Ray-Ray McCloud, the team’s fourth-leading wide receiver, had 12 catches for 135 yards.

Chris Conley is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent, and the 49ers will need to get a lot more from young players Ronnie Bell and Danny Gray or find others who can contribute.

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