49ers weigh tough receiver options as free agency looms

By | March 9, 2024

49ers weigh tough receiver options as free agency looms originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area

Two of the biggest items on the 49ers’ to-do list for the offseason involve their own wide receivers.

First, the 49ers may have to make a decision next week on restricted free agent Jauan Jennings, who the club is keen to secure with a multi-year contract extension.

Down the road, San Francisco will have to work something out with Brandon Aiyuk, who has become the 49ers’ best wide receiver and one of the best in the NFL.

And when the topic of tough decisions comes up regarding the cost of rising contracts, the 49ers must also work with Deebo Samuel to plan for their future.

Here’s a closer look at the situations surrounding their top three wide receivers:

Brandon Aiyuk

A year ago, the 49ers picked up the fully guaranteed $14.124 million fifth-year option for the 2024 season. While Aiyuk could play for the 49ers this season on that contract, that’s an option neither side wants.

Why he should stay: Aiyuk and coach Kyle Shanahan have both put in a lot of work to get to the point where Aiyuk is now one of the best receivers in the NFL. Last season he had 75 receptions for 1,342 yards and seven touchdowns.

Aiyuk works very well in the middle of the field, and quarterback Brock Purdy makes those hard throws in traffic to allow Aiyuk to make big gains. He averaged 17.9 yards per catch.

Aiyuk is only 25 years old and he takes good care of his body, so he thinks he will be a good player for a long time.

If the 49ers sign him to a multi-year extension — say, four years, $100 million — it could be structured in a way that significantly reduces his cap hit for the upcoming season.

Why he should go: If the sides are far from agreeing on Aiyuk’s value, the 49ers could trade him. This move would reduce Aiyuk’s cap costs for this year. The 49ers could receive valuable draft picks that could lead to a talented, cheaper wide receiver and likely a potential starter at another position.

Juan Jennings

Jennings, 26, was a seventh-round draft pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. The 49ers waived him before the start of his rookie season and he was returned to the practice squad.

A three-year veteran, Jennings will be a restricted free agent. If the 49ers are unable to reach an agreement on a multi-year contract, they will have to make a decision early next week.

They can place a $3 million offer on Jennings, giving the 49ers only the right of first refusal. If he were to sign an offer sheet with another team, the 49ers would have the opportunity to meet the terms of the contract to retain him.

The other procurement levels are the second round of $4.978 million and the first round of $6.9 million. These numbers represent the compensation the 49ers would receive if they refused to match an offer sheet from another team.

Why he should stay: Jennings is a tough, tough wide receiver who makes an impact even when he doesn’t have the ball in his hands.

He fits well in the 49ers offense as the No. 3 receiver. He doesn’t catch many passes, but he’s a reliable target to move the chains. Thus the phrase: “Third and Jauan.”

The 49ers simply don’t have much depth at wide receiver, and there’s a big drop-off after Jennings.

Why he should go: Perhaps its value will never be greater than it is today. He would have been in the conversation for Super Bowl LVIII MVP had the 49ers held on to their overtime lead against the Kansas City Chiefs.

Is Jennings worth a second-round tender? Or would that $5 million be better spent elsewhere? If another team signs Jennings to an offer sheet, that team will structure the deal in a way that would make it highly unlikely the 49ers would match.

Deebo Samuel

If the 49ers were to trade Samuel this offseason, it would mean San Francisco would have $21.7 in dead money this year. But it would create $6.9 million in cap room. In addition, his contract would be completely deleted from the books for 2025.

Samuel currently projects to put $28.6 million on the cap this year and $24.2 million next year.

Why he should stay: Samuel is the only player over the past three seasons who has made the 49ers offense so unique with his skills as a receiver and runner.

After missing four games in 2022 and not being nearly as explosive as in the past, Samuel had a bounce-back season in 2023.

His average reception dropped from 18.2 yards in 2021 to 11.3 yards in 2022. Last year it increased to 14.9 yards per reception, while he caught 60 passes for 892 yards and seven touchdowns.

Samuel averaged 6.1 yards per rushing attempt and scored five touchdowns on the ground last season after his production as a runner dropped to 5.5 yards and three touchdowns in 2022. Samuel sets the tone on both sides of the ball with his hard attacking style.

Why he should go: Bill Walsh, the late Hall of Fame coach, often said that it is better to say goodbye to a good player a year too early than a year too late.

Samuel doesn’t turn down any hits. He gets hit. He played just nine snaps in the divisional round against Green Bay due to a shoulder injury.

How much longer can he play at a high level?

The 49ers will also have to make some tough decisions to account for rising costs and some big contracts in the future. A year from now, Purdy will be in line to become the team’s highest-paid player.

The 49ers can either put the situation aside and address Samuel’s situation when the answer becomes clearer, or they can explore the trade market to see if they can get something big in return this season.

Free agent options

If the 49ers think it will be difficult for each of their top three receivers to return this season, here are some players to consider when free agency starts next week:

Kendrick Bourne: The 49ers could explore the possibility of bringing back Bourne, who played his first four NFL seasons with the organization. He spent the last three years with the New England Patriots and caught 127 passes for 1,640 yards and 10 touchdowns.

His recovery from a torn ACL is going well, he told NBC Sports Bay Area during the Super Bowl last month. He was on pace for his best season before the injury.

Curtis Samuel: Samuel, a six-year pro, is coming off a season in which he caught 62 passes for 613 yards and four touchdowns with Washington. He averaged over $11 million per season under his last contract, and that price tag should drop slightly this time around.

Darnell Mooney: He is smaller in stature than what the 49ers generally expect from their wide receivers. Mooney showed some production despite being with the Chicago Bears. His best season was 2021, when he caught 81 passes for 1,055 yards and four touchdowns.

Laviska Shenault: He had a pair of 600-yard seasons with Jacksonville in his first two years in the NFL before going to Carolina in a trade and disappearing. He played just eight games last season before going on reserve with an ankle injury, so he believes he is available on a reasonable contract.

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