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2024 NFL Draft

Saunders: Steelers Should Pass on Trading Top Pick for Brandon Aiyuk

The Pittsburgh Steelers rumored interest in Brandon Aiyuk is interesting, but it’s not the right move for the team.

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Pittsburgh Steelers WR Brandon Aiyuk
49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk celebrates after a touchdown, Sept. 11, 2023 - Ed Thompson / Steelers Now

The Pittsburgh Steelers are continuing their pursuit of San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk, despite initially being told the 49ers would not trade him and San Francisco general manager John Lynch saying publicly that the team wants to keep its star wide receiver.

“With B.A., I’ve communicated on many occasions: Our wish is that he’s here as part of the Niners for the rest of his career,” Lynch said on Monday. “We’re working through that. I’m not going to get in all those details. We’re really focused on B.A. being a part of (our team). We’re having good talks, and I’m just going to leave it at that. We’ll focus on the draft here today.”

Still, the two sides continue to be linked, in part because there has been no traction on a contract extension between the Niners and Aiyuk. Mike Silver of the San Francisco Chronicle reported on Tuesday that an Aiyuk trade remains in play, and that he is seeking a contract that averages at or over $25 million per season, a price the 49ers to this point have not been willing to entertain.

“I’m trying to get what I deserve,” Aiyuk said in a March 28 appearance on Nightcap with Shannon Sharpe and Chad Ochocinco. “We’ve got professionals working on both sides, so hopefully we can come to a professional agreement.”

The reasons the Steelers are interested in Aiyuk should be clear. He’s the best wide receiver available in the marketplace, and the Steelers have a desperate need at the position after trading away starter Diontae Johnson earlier this offseason.

But is trading for Aiyuk the best way to fill that need? I don’t think so — at least not right now, at the 49ers’ asking price. The 49ers are asking for a first-round pick for Aiyuk, and have broken off talks with at least one team in the past when that value did not materialize.

That’s a steep price to pay for a player that is also going to want to be paid. Aiyuk is looking to be a top-five wide receiver in the league in terms of average annual value.

The Steelers can probably afford to get that kind of contract under the salary cap. After restructuring Alex Highsmith’s deal on Wednesday, they’re essentially even when it comes to where they need to be in relation to the salary cap entering the season. Our latest estimate puts the Steelers at $239,000 over the salary cap, when accounting all of their expenses between now and the start of the season.

They can make another $28.7 million by restructuring the contracts of T.J. Watt and Minkah Fitzpatrick and extending or adding void years to the deal of Cam Hayward. Even if a new deal for Aiyuk would be four years, $120 million, his first-year cap hit wouldn’t be that large. The Steelers can absolutely afford to pay Aiyuk what he wants.

The better question is whether they should. Let’s start by looking at it from a needs perspective. The Steelers enter the 2024 NFL Draft needing at least one and maybe two wide receivers, a center that can play ASAP, future starters at tackle, cornerback and defensive tackle and depth at linebacker.

To fill those needs, they have four picks in the top 100 and the aforementioned cap space. Spending all of the money and the top draft pick to address one of those needs likely means they will not be able to get to anywhere near all of them. Even with all of their draft picks in order, that’s a long list. A draft without a No. 1 pick likely takes one of tackle and center off the table.

And when you look at the Steelers’ offense under Arthur Smith, it’s hard to argue that’s the proper priority for allocation of resources. When Smith had the No. 4 scoring offense in the NFL as the offensive coordinator of the Tennessee Titans in 2020, they had the No. 28 passing offense.

The Steelers are going to run the ball, and if they can’t run the ball successfully, this offense will not work, no matter who plays wide receiver. They also need to keep Russell Wilson and/or Justin Fields — who were sacked a combined 89 times and fumbled a combined 20 times last season — on their feet.

Even if the offensive line was in better shape, this does not appear to be the type of offense that is going to get the most out of that kind of investment. Smith has had quality receivers in A.J. Brown and Drake London. Neither of them has ever sniffed the top five in receiving in a Smith offense. So why pay a top-five price?

Finally, why would the Pittsburgh Steelers of all teams feel the need to spend big money at wide receiver? They probably have the best draft track record at that position — without using a first round pick since Santonio Holmes — of any team in the league. George Pickens was a second-round pick and a first-day contributor on the outside. So was JuJu Smith-Schuster. Chase Claypool was certainly good enough as a rookie, even if he never progressed from there. Martavis Bryant, Emmanuel Sanders, Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace. Over and over again, the Steelers have found impact talent at the wide receiver after the first day of the draft. So why push the panic button to get one, when faced with one of the deepest wide receiver classes the NFL has ever seen and four top draft picks?

It just doesn’t make sense. The Steelers have an offensive identity that they want established, and they hired Smith to turn that vision into reality. They aren’t likely to have great quarterback play. It’s not going to be an elite passing scheme. They need people-movers in the trenches to do what they want to do. That is a far better use of the team’s top available assets than trading for a receiver they’ll never fully utilize.

Also, there are other teams (Buffalo and Carolina come to mind) who should absolutely be in a position to pay more than the Steelers should, if Aiyuk really is available. Aiyuk could win the Bills a Super Bowl and save the Panthers their investment in a No. 1 overall quarterback. Nothing he can do for the Steelers would compare to that.

Now, there is one trade scenario for Brandon Aiyuk that does make sense. The price is high because the 49ers are not currently motivated sellers. They can afford to pay him what he wants just like the Steelers can. They can keep him and try to win a Super Bowl and let him walk after the season. They’re in much better shape to try to win now than Pittsburgh is.

But maybe if things stretch into the summer, and Aiyuk holds out for training camp. Maybe the 49ers draft a wide receiver this weekend that looks promising. Maybe some harsh words are said from one side or the other that poison the well in negotiations. Perhaps Aiyuk will threaten to refuse to play under his current deal. Then, a trade for a 2025 draft pick might start to make some sense for both teams. That would let the Steelers address the rest of their needs with this year’s draft picks, and add Aiyuk.

It would still be a high price to pay, but it would significantly lessen the impact that acquiring him would have on the team around him in 2024.