March 22, 2023
Christian McCaffrey Trade is just what Win-Now 49ers need for Super Bowl Chase

Christian McCaffrey Trade is just what Win-Now 49ers need for Super Bowl Chase

Harry How/Getty Images

There’s nothing like a late-night blockbuster to kick-start a weekend of NFL action.

Late Thursday night, the San Francisco 49ers sent shockwaves through the league by handing the Carolina Panthers a package of picks for star running back Christian McCaffrey.

For the player, it’s a homecoming of sorts — a return to Northern California after playing collegiately at Stanford. For the Panthers, it’s a sign that Carolina is blowing up the team and starting over.

For the 49ers, that means San Francisco going all-in for the 2022 season. That the team is confident enough that McCaffrey will make it a legitimate Super Bowl contender that it continues to weigh on the future of the franchise. Adding arguably the most versatile and dangerous back in the NFL is the missing piece that will propel the 49ers to the top.

While there’s no guarantee McCaffrey’s arrival will put the 49ers on a collision course with Glendale, Arizona and Super Bowl LVII, it’s hard to argue that it didn’t shift the balance of power even further towards San Francisco’s in the NFC West and the Niners did has the second best NFC team on paper.

No one was happier to hear the news that McCaffrey was heading West than 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, as he said on KNBR Friday (with 49ers Webzone’s David Bonilla).

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - OCTOBER 09: Christian McCaffrey #22 of the Carolina Panthers serves on the field during the second quarter against the San Francisco 49ers at Bank of America Stadium on October 09, 2022 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

Eakin Howard/Getty Images

“It was more of a big smile and then like, ‘Okay, I gotta go back and repeat the third downs, repeat the red zone, repeat everything,'” Shanahan said. “And then it was like, ‘Wait a second. He has yet to come and pass the exam. He won’t be at practice.’”

It’s not hard to see why Shanahan was excited. In the first six games of the 2022 season, McCaffrey was essentially the offensive line for the Panthers. Even as defense snapped at him on the league’s worst team, he rallied for a total of 670 yards. He averaged 4.6 yards per carry and was on pace for over 90 receptions and nearly 1,900 yards.

McCaffrey’s last full season was one of the best from a running back in recent memory. In 2019, he became only the third player in league history to surpass 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. He’s averaged 4.8 yards per carry this season and has 19 touchdowns.

Simply put, when 26-year-old McCaffrey is healthy and at his best, he does everything at an elite level. It’s not that opponents didn’t try to stop him in Charlotte. They just couldn’t.

SANTA CLARA, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 27: Carolina Panthers' Christian McCaffrey #22 carries the ball in for a two point conversion against the San Francisco 49ers during the third quarter of an NFL football game at Levi's Stadium on October 27, 2019 in Santa Clara, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Of course, adding a player of this caliber didn’t come cheap for San Francisco. Per Ian Rapport by NFL Network, the 49ers sent Carolina a second-round pick, a third-round pick, and a fourth-round pick in 2023, and a fifth-round pick in 2024. His contract includes cap hits of $12 million in 2023 and 2024, although this year’s cap hit is negligible after the Panthers revised McCaffrey’s contract during the offseason.

Combine that with what the 49ers spent trading for quarterback Trey Lance in 2021, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch can just sleep in when the 2023 draft rolls around.

Andrew Brandt @Andrew Brandt

The 49ers have made their selection for the 2023 draft.
They are Trey Lance and Christian McCaffrey.
Your next pick is in the fifth round.

The deal admittedly carries risks beyond the cost of design capital and cap space. McCaffrey missed 23 of 33 games in 2020 and 2021 with shoulder, ankle and hamstring injuries. But the injuries didn’t recur and he hasn’t shown any ill effects from them in 2022.

The future is now in San Francisco. The team pushed all of their chips into the middle of the table. When you consider what McCaffrey could add to the 49ers’ offense, it’s not hard to see why.

The first six weeks of the 2022 season were bumpy in San Francisco. The Niners have a win over rival Rams to their credit, but they also have losses to two teams with losing records. Last week, the Niners were handled relatively easily by a Falcons team that no one plans for the Super Bowl.

SANTA CLARA, CA - OCTOBER 27: Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) carries the football during the NFL game between the Carolina Panthers and the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on October 27, 2019 in Santa Clara, CA.  (Photo by Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Cody Glenn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Like the team itself, San Francisco’s offense was patchy. But still before the trade, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo expressed confidence that the offense turned a corner:

“I mean, there are only certain plays where there is a confidence factor. I think that’s a big part of any offense, just between the quarterback and the skill guys, there’s a trust factor that doesn’t come easily either. You have to earn that stuff, you have to earn it in here, in the locker room, out on the field, away from the facility, whatever you do. I think there is a confidence factor that we are moving in the right direction. We just have to make it happen sooner rather than later.”

San Francisco’s offensive problems can be attributed in part to Garoppolo being pushed back into the lineup without much offseason work after Lance suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2. And given that McCaffrey has next to no time to prepare for the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Shanahan allowed him not to play in Week 7.

“I’m still up in the air as to whether or not we can bring him here for Sunday,” he said. “I know for sure that he will be here next Sunday. But that’s why I’ll wait and see for now.”

However, once McCaffrey gets the hang of it, the 49ers’ offense should be headed in the right direction at warp speed.

SANTA CLARA, CA - SEPTEMBER 10: Christian McCaffrey #22 of the Carolina Panthers rushes during the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi's Stadium on September 10, 2017 in Santa Clara, California.  The Panthers defeated the 49ers 23-3.  (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)

Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Under Shanahan, the Niners were one of the better-running teams in the NFL with a menagerie of late-round picks and undrafted free agents. This year, the 49ers are ranked 12th in the league in rushing. Last year they were seventh. Players like Elijah Mitchell and Jeff Wilson Jr. were great discoveries for the 49ers, but they’re not nearly as talented as McCaffrey.

With McCaffrey in the fold, the 49ers have the best roster of talent in the NFC. Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel at wide receiver. George Kittle on the tight end. And now McCaffrey. Both Samuel and McCaffrey can also cause damage throughout the formation – chess pieces that are a dream for Shanahan and a nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators.

Add that the 49ers should soon get Trent Williams back as an offensive tackle and that the San Francisco defense ranks first in the NFL in total defense and second against pass, against run and points allowed and that the only thing that stands between the Niners and the NFC best team title on paper is Garoppolo.

But even if you think the 49ers aren’t the NFC’s best team, they are by far the front runners in the NFC West. The Rams are 26th in the league on offense thanks to a dismal running game (Los Angeles allegedly
made his own push for McCaffrey) and offensive line. The Seattle Seahawks are a beautiful story, but their ruthless defense limits their ceiling. And while the Arizona Cardinals aren’t a bad team, they’re not a good one either.

It seems strange to be so excited about a team that will most likely be 3-4 in a few days. But even if San Francisco loses to the Chiefs on Sunday, it won’t be more than a game behind if there are 10 to play. Next week’s tilt with the Rams will feature a very different team than what we’ve seen so far. A more dangerous team.

And in February, we can look back on October 20 as the day the balance of power in the NFC shifted.

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