3 San Francisco 49ers who could be traded if they keep Brandon Aiyuk long-term

These three San Francisco 49ers players could become trade candidates if it means ensuring stud wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk will remain with the team for the long haul.

Super Bowl LVIII - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs
Super Bowl LVIII - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs / Focus On Sport/GettyImages

The San Francisco 49ers are learning that it can be problematic to maintain a Super Bowl-contending roster every year the hard way. It gets expensive quickly, meaning the franchise faces difficult decisions over the offseason, including what to do with rising wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk.

Aiyuk has been the center of trade rumors after he made eye-opening comments regarding his uncertain future with the 49ers days following the loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LVIII, and only added fuel to the fire by recently tweeting at Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin.  

However, San Francisco exercised Aiyuk’s fifth-year option for 2024, giving them additional time to sort out a long-term deal while ensuring one more season of team control. But if the 49ers sign the 2020 first-round pick to a lucrative contract, it will come at the expense of other players on the roster because of their financial restraints and the looming extension of quarterback Brock Purdy.

If the 49ers decide to hang onto Aiyuk instead of trading him, it will likely spell the end for these three players.

3. Dre Greenlaw, LB

Many remember linebacker Dre Greenlaw tearing his Achilles tendon when he was getting ready to trot onto the field for San Francisco’s next defensive series in the second quarter of the Super Bowl loss to the Chiefs. But he was making plays early in the game before his departure.

Greenlaw is a talented linebacker entering his age-27 campaign. However, he is only under contract for one more year with the 49ers, and the team could look to move on from him rather than re-sign him following his devastating injury against Kansas City, especially if it means Aiyuk stays put.

Before tearing his Achilles, Greenlaw enjoyed a productive 2023 season. He recorded 120 combined tackles, four pass deflections, and 1.5 sacks, grading as a plus defender in coverage per PFF.

While teams may be wary of giving up draft capital or valuable assets to acquire a player on an expiring contract who will almost assuredly not be ready for the start of 2024, Greenlaw offers enough upside and intrigue to view it as a potential buy-low opportunity.

Moreover, Greenlaw has become more expendable in light of the 49ers signing 2021 All-Pro linebacker De’Vondre Campbell this offseason.

2. Charvarius Ward, CB

Like Dre Greenlaw, Charvarius Ward is entering the final year of his contract with the Niners. But parting ways with him is a much more daunting prospect considering his impact on their secondary as the leader of their unit.

Ward broke out in a big way in 2023, logging 72 combined tackles, a league-leading 23 pass deflections, five interceptions, one forced fumble, and a defensive touchdown, earning his first Pro Bowl nod and AP All-Pro Second Team honors.

However, after seeing the lofty contract shutdown cornerback L’Jarius Sneed received from the Tennessee Titans, the team may be wise to abandon ship prematurely before they find themselves in a position where they need to make Ward one of the highest-paid defensive backs in the NFL.

The soon-to-be 28-year-old would have no shortage of suitors if San Fran put him on the trade block because of his age and on-field production at one of the premium positions in football, making it an easier pill to swallow for the 49ers knowing they’d get a handsome package in return. But the lack of depth they have behind Ward would put them in a challenging position should they elect to move on from him, so they must be confident about Aiyuk’s long-term outlook if so.

1. Deebo Samuel, WR

How interesting would it be to see the 49ers choose Aiyuk over former All-Pro wideout Deebo Samuel?

Samuel has failed to replicate the production of his breakout campaign from 2021 in the following two seasons, dealing with various nicks and bruises during that time. But he is still being compensated as one of the top receivers in football. 

However, the 49ers have a potential way to get out of his deal this offseason after June 1st.

San Francisco can designate Samuel as a post-June 1st cut, clearing approximately $17.2 million of salary relief, though they would take on a cap hit of roughly $11.3 million. 

Alternatively, they can trade him after June 1st, leaving the team with nearly $6.7 million in dead money, freeing up $22 million in cap space. That seems like the best approach, reducing the dead cap hit while creating the most financial flexibility and netting the 49ers additional assets via trade.

Aiyuk was visibly the better Niners receiver in 2023, and the stats support that. He operated as the No. 1 pass-catcher and thrived in that role while Samuel struggled to return to form, suggesting his efforts in 2021 may have been a mirage compared to the total body of work. No one can blame San Fran if they stick with the younger and more talented player, even if it means moving on from a fan-favorite.