Brandon Aiyuk

ESPN's Graziano believes Aiyuk trade ‘most likely' outcome for 49ers

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The 49ers are headed for a salary cap conundrum, but it's nothing the reigning NFC champions haven't figured out before.

And while contract restructuring has worked in the past for San Francisco, ESPN's Dan Graziano doesn't see it playing out that way this time around with so many high-profile 49ers on the payroll -- and one star receiver due for a lucrative payday.

The most likely outcome, Graziano posited, rather than a lot of restructuring or heartbreaking cuts, is that the 49ers don't extend Brandon Aiyuk and instead trade him to an NFL team willing to pay him what he's worth.

"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," Graziano wrote. "That's the cleanest way for them to address all of their other needs. I see San Francisco extending [Talanoa] Hufanga and coming to some sort of arrangements with [Kyle] Juszczyk and [Dre] 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."

Extending Aiyuk certainly is the 49ers' top offseason priority, as he approaches the fifth and final season of his rookie contract. But with top-paid players at plenty of other positions, these things aren't as easy as San Francisco would love them to be.

An Aiyuk extension completed this summer would reduce the wideout's $14.2 million cap hit in 2024, but given the receiver market, the back end of the deal could impact whether or not the 49ers are able to pay quarterback Brock Purdy when the time comes due to the other lucrative contracts on the books.

Two of those contracts belong to defensive end Nick Bosa and wide receiver Deebo Samuel, both of whom were offseason "hold-ins" as the 49ers negotiated their deals. Graziano suggested they could pay Aiyuk and restructure some veteran contracts, like that of Trent Williams or even Samuel, but it still wouldn't leave enough money for San Francisco to make the improvements it needs to this offseason -- without some painful cuts.

Graziano made it clear he wasn't suggesting the 49ers cut Juszczyk or Greenlaw, but merely pointed out that doing so would save the team $4.9 million and $6.8 million in 2024, respectively.

An Aiyuk trade, meanwhile would save the 49ers the $14.2 million he's due next season.

"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," Graziano wrote. "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."

It's a tough puzzle to solve, and there's no telling how thing will play out. But if Graziano's assessment makes one thing clear, it's that some difficult decisions will need to be made no matter what.

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