49ers’ Super Bowl dreams have a looming salary cap crunch

The San Francisco 49ers just extended running back Christian McCaffrey, giving him the largest contract in NFL history for his position. But all offseason, they’ve been plagued by rumors surrounding their wide receiver contracts.

During the 2024 NFL Draft, there were reports that Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk could both be on the trading block. For Samuel, it was to get his cap hit off the books and for Aiyuk, it was to avoid paying him huge money at the top of the receiver market this offseason.

The latest salvo in the public negotiating is a report out of the Bay Area that the 49ers offered Aiyuk $26 million per year, which would place him eighth in average annual salary among receivers. Aiyuk skipped the 49ers’ mandatory minicamp in early June.

If you look at the current salary cap rankings, the 49ers have plenty of cap space to spend (nearly $32 million, per Spotrac) and extending Aiyuk would likely lower his 2024 cap hit, as money is pushed into future years. But looking into the future, it’s pretty clear the 49ers are looking over the edge of a cliff and planning financially for 2025 and beyond in their negotiations with Aiyuk.

Any unused cap space from 2024 will roll over, but San Francisco currently has the third-highest salary cap commitments for 2025 without Aiyuk on the roster. They also have several players at the top of the market at other positions, with big jumps in cap hit ready to kick in.

Five 49ers players are in the top five 2025 cap hits at their position in McCaffrey, fullback Kyle Juszczyk, tight end George Kittle, left tackle Trent Willaims, and defensive tackle Javon Hargrave. In addition, Samuel is eighth among receivers and Nick Bosa’s $20.5 million cap hit is 15th among pass rushers.

Charvarius Ward’s $12.2 million 2025 cap hit is 15th among cornerbacks, but he’s not even under contract for the season. That’s just the dead cap hit from his void years. Same with Arik Armstead, who will count nearly $15 million against the cap in 2025 despite signing with the Jacksonville Jaguars this offseason.

The slumbering giant is QB Brock Purdy, who is famously playing at a high level despite being the final pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Under the league’s collective bargaining agreement, Purdy isn’t eligible to sign a contract extension until after the 2024 season, his third in the pros. With Spotrac listing his market value at $46 million per season, will Purdy happily play out the final year of his deal making only $1.1 million in 2025?

If Purdy does indeed argue for or even hold out for a new contract during the 2025 offseason, his ballooning cap hit will surely push other players off the roster. (That’s on 49ers general manager John Lynch, not Purdy, who deserves to be paid.)

And that leads us back to Aiyuk. With their current cap commitments, it’s highly unlikely they will be able to apply the franchise tag for receivers in 2025, currently projected to be near $25 million. With Samuel’s $24 million cap hit and Kittle’s $22 million, can you have two receivers and a tight end counting that much on the cap? The 49ers also selected wide receiver Ricky Pearsall in the first round of the 2024 NFL Draft in an attempt to prepare for the transition, so it seems a breakup is looming.

Other teams around the league have begun to move on from highly paid receivers in an attempt to keep their Super Bowl windows open wider. The Kansas City Chiefs traded Tyreek Hill while the Buffalo Bills traded Stefon Diggs.

A portion of the 49ers fan base has come to terms with 2024 being the last dance for this group, but the majority think the Super Bowl window will last beyond the 2024 season. It’s probably a both sides answer here, as San Francisco will no doubt be competitive for the foreseeable future but with some different names mixed in. Which current players will be on the outside looking in?

In 2025, Williams is going to be 37 when the season starts and Kittle will turn 32 in October.

It won’t get any easier in 2026, when Bosa’s hit jumps from $20.5 million in 2025 to $42 million. Williams’ hit is near $38 million while Hargrave and Warner are both over $26.5 million. Kittle’s contract expires after the 2025 season, but he will count $13 million on the 2026 cap anyway. Two veteran 49ers receivers, Deebo Samuel and Jauan Jennings, also don’t have contracts for 2026, but each have dead cap hits north of $8.3 million to go along with significant dead cap commitments for Leonard Floyd and Yetur Gross-Matos.

If I’m making an educated guess, we will see an Aiyuk extension some time before training camp opens in California, but we will also see them move on from a few of the names we listed next offseason as they try to reload around Purdy.

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