49ers to decline Javon Kinlaw's option, pick up Brandon Aiyuk's

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers spent first-round picks on defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk three years ago. By next week, they have to decide whether both players fit in their plans for 2024.

As it turns out, those choices have already been made.

General manager John Lynch announced Friday that the Niners will decline their 2024 fifth-year option on Kinlaw's rookie contract and exercise the same fifth-year option on Aiyuk's deal. Both players are under contract for 2023.

"I talked to both of them," Lynch said. "Brandon, we're going to exercise that fifth-year option. We won't with Javon.

"I talked with Javon -- still looking for great things from Javon. Javon is having an outstanding offseason. He's in a great place and he's excited about what's to come, as are we for him."

Neither decision comes as much of a surprise given that Aiyuk has become one of San Francisco's most productive offensive players while Kinlaw has struggled to stay healthy and produce on the defensive line.

The 49ers had high hopes for Kinlaw when they used the No. 14 pick in the 2020 NFL draft on him. He was their hand-picked replacement for star defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who was traded to the Indianapolis Colts for the 13th choice in that draft.

After moving down one spot in a trade, the Niners envisioned Kinlaw stepping into Buckner's spot and becoming their latest force on the defensive line. Instead, Kinlaw has battled persistent knee issues, including a torn right ACL in 2021.

Kinlaw had a series of stops and starts early in 2022 before returning late in the season. In three NFL seasons, he's appeared in 24 games with 45 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception.

San Francisco signed defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to a four-year, $84 million contract in March, ostensibly to replace Kinlaw. Their hope now is that Kinlaw can emerge as a key rotational player.

"Because of the injuries, maybe it hasn't gone as well as we all might have anticipated or as well as it would've had he been healthy, that's part of this thing," Lynch said. "Now he is healthy. ... He's gonna be part of our rotation and we're really excited about that."

Aiyuk remains a prominent part of San Francisco's plans. On a team with running back Christian McCaffrey, receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end George Kittle, it was Aiyuk who led the Niners in receiving in 2022 with 1,015 yards on 78 catches with eight touchdowns.

If Aiyuk doesn't sign a contract extension before the 2024 season, he would be due $14.12 million that year.

Another big season in 2023 would put Aiyuk in position for a significant contract extension and could put the Niners in a bind when it comes to what they pay him and Samuel, who signed a three-year, $71.55 million extension in August.

That's a problem the Niners wouldn't mind having, however, because it would mean Aiyuk has continued to ascend.

"You can't keep everyone," Lynch said. "We're trying to do something special this year, and Brandon is going to be a big part of that and beyond as well. And so yes, you always have to think out a few years, but we're really excited about Brandon.

"I feel like he made another big step last year, and I think the best is yet to come and so we want him being a part of it. At some point, yeah, you have to figure things out and I guess we'll take that as it comes, but as of right now and into the future, we're really excited about Brandon Aiyuk and where he is at as a pro."