Brandon Aiyuk

Why 49ers potentially face difficult decisions at wide receiver

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Deebo Samuel is one of the top-paid wide receivers in the game.

Brandon Aiyuk is looking for a contract that exceeds Samuel's deal and takes into account the steadily rising receiver market.

On Wednesday, the 49ers locked up No. 3 receiver Jauan Jennings on a two-year deal that signifies a substantial pay increase and likely pays him as if he were a starter.

And, on top of that, the 49ers expect major contributions from rookie Ricky Pearsall, a first-round draft pick who will sign a fully guaranteed four-year, $12.54 million contract that includes a $5.94 million signing bonus.

How long can the 49ers keep this group together?

Not long, perhaps, unless these four players are so good together that general manager John Lynch believes it is in the best interest of the organization to find other places on the roster to cut corners.

And that is certainly one of their many options.

Offensive line coach/run game coordinator Chris Foerster -- of all people -- explained why he would always lean toward choosing a playmaker over a blocker in the draft.

“If they ask me, invest in guys that touch the ball, guys that can touch the ball and score touchdowns,” Foerster said. “And then there's a range of guys, second, third, fourth round, fifth round even, that we will find starting offensive linemen in.

“The fact that you can throw a short pass to Deebo, even though the right tackle's getting beat, it ends up being a 60-yard touchdown. So, yeah, the right tackle blocks somebody, but if the guy gets tackled at 5 yards, you don't have the 60-yard touchdown.”

Sure, the salary cap is rising as the NFL continues to print money.

But the 49ers’ player contracts are also growing rapidly as they continue to acquire and develop many of the top players in the NFL at their positions.

After this season, Brock Purdy will go from being one of the team’s lowest-paid players to, potentially, a $50 million-a-year quarterback.

Starting cornerbacks Charvarius Ward and Deommodore Lenoir, as well as linebacker Dre Greenlaw, safety Talanoa Hufanga and left guard Aaron Banks are scheduled for unrestricted free agency and could cash in, as well.

Aiyuk also is set to enter the final year of his contract. The 49ers are scheduled to pay him $14.1 million this season on the fifth-year option. He could play this season on his existing contract, but it makes sense for Aiyuk to sign a new deal that works for both sides.

Aiyuk likely is seeking a contract that pays him on par with the wideouts who have signed new deals this offseason, specifically the Detroit Lions’ Amon-Ra St. Brown, whose contract pays him an average of $23.74 million over the next five seasons.

On Thursday, the Miami Dolphins reached a reported three-year, $84.75 million extension with wide receiver Jaylen Waddle. In other words, the wide receiver market is robust, and Aiyuk eventually will get paid generational money.

It might be difficult for the 49ers to justify keeping Aiyuk and Samuel together beyond this season.

The 49ers did not touch Deebo Samuel’s contract this offseason to create any additional cap space. He counts $28.6 million against the salary cap this year.

In 2025, the final year of his contract, he is scheduled to count $24.2 million against the cap. A trade or release would save at least $9 million of cap room.

The 49ers made one difficult decision this offseason to move on from defensive lineman Arik Armstead. Each offseason will bring about more necessary roster changes to longtime pillars of the franchise.

That’s a fact of life in the NFL, where teams can determine on a year-to-year basis which players stay and which players no longer fit.

It seems unlikely the 49ers will be able to keep Samuel and Aiyuk together beyond this season.

But, depending on how this season plays out, it might be impossible for the organization to break up a good thing, too.

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