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The Christian McCaffrey Trade Is a Wildly Fun All-In Move for the 49ers

San Francisco dealt a haul of picks to bring in the star running back, igniting questions about the value of the position. But if there is anyone who can get the most out of CMC, it’s Kyle Shanahan.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

Thursday Night Football didn’t need a sideline attraction last night the way it had in weeks past—the New Orleans Saints and Arizona Cardinals were actually scoring points. But it got one anyway when ESPN’s Adam Schefter broke some news: The San Francisco 49ers were trading for star Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey.

That’s a big price for a midseason trade—no first-round pick, but four total selections. Of course, the 49ers didn’t have firsts to send, having used their 2023 first-rounder in the trade-up for QB Trey Lance in the 2021 draft. Now, their second- and third-rounders in the upcoming draft belong to Carolina. Even with incoming third-round compensatory picks for their recent assistant coach departures, this deal leaves San Francisco in a clear all-in position for a Super Bowl run this year.

All-in bets are always risky, but the 49ers have been looking for their opportunity for awhile. They committed multiple first-round picks to Lance after missing out on the Matthew Stafford sweepstakes—Stafford, of course, would complete the rival Rams’ all-in push, as Von Miller and Odell Beckham Jr. joined him in Los Angeles to spark the 2021 Super Bowl run that went through Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers in the NFC championship game last season. The 49ers clearly don’t want to wait their turn, and with a win over the Rams already in their pocket, they’re making a push of their own.

But McCaffrey isn’t a star quarterback or receiver or pass rusher—he’s a running back. A running back on a pricey second contract. One of the most thoroughly debated resources in all of sports. McCaffrey’s move to San Francisco creates an intersection of pretty much every major talking point in the debate surrounding running back value. Up against quarterbacks, wide receivers, and pass rushers, all of whom have a greater impact on more important plays, running backs have fallen by the wayside as a secondary consideration in team building. Late draft picks can step in and replace incumbent veterans without much, if any, drop-off in the effectiveness of the running game.

No team has demonstrated this more clearly than Shanahan’s 49ers. Since Shanahan took over the job in 2017, the 49ers have had a different leading rusher in each season, often with spike production coming from backups or practice-squaders.

49ers’ Leading Rusher by Year

Year Player Acquisition Yds TD
Year Player Acquisition Yds TD
2022 Jeff Wilson UDFA 400 2
2021 Elijah Mitchell Round 6 963 5
2020 Jeff Wilson UDFA 600 7
2019 Raheem Mostert Practice Squad 772 8
2018 Matt Breida UDFA 814 3
2017 Carlos Hyde Incumbent 938 8

While these fringe roster candidates like Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert were blossoming into explosive backs, the 49ers were investing in other running backs who wouldn’t actually break the roster. They spent a 2017 fourth-round pick on Joe Williams, who never took a meaningful snap for them. They signed Jerick McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million deal in 2018—injuries kept him from making much of an impact on the field. They drafted third-round backs in 2021 (Trey Sermon) and 2022 (Tyrion Davis-Price). Sermon is off the team; Davis-Price, before the McCaffrey trade, was RB3.

This running back carousel is not new to Kyle. As Danny Heifetz wrote for The Ringer two years ago, churning productive running games out of late-round picks goes back to the Mike Shanahan offense in the early 2000s, and that magic has persisted with the offshoots of his coaching tree for the past two decades.

Why, then, would Kyle Shanahan, who has seen this system work without star backs for the past two years, offer a hefty trade package for a highly paid running back? Well, for one, Shanahan doesn’t really run “the system” anymore. The broad strokes are still the same—the 49ers get under center, put players in motion, run the ball, and then throw with play-action off their run looks—but the reliance on outside-zone running has diminished over time. Sports Info Solutions has charted San Francisco with 17 outside-zone runs this season—only five teams have fewer attempts.

The plug-’n’-chug nature of outside-zone rushing—get the defense going one way, get upfield, and gash them—has been so dominant for so long that it has now become the league meta, and accordingly, defenses have learned how to adjust. The onus was on all of these Shanahan-inspired offenses—Rams, Vikings, Bengals, Packers, Browns, Titans, 49ers—to evolve. In acquiring Trent Williams, adding Deebo Samuel to the backfield, and building around rushing QB Trey Lance, Shanahan has been looking for the next wrinkle to stay ahead of defenses. The variety in his running game—the fakes, the pullers, the shotgun splitback, the little adjustments—has expanded with each new personnel change and defensive counterpunch. This ain’t your daddy’s Shanahan offense, and this ain’t Kyle’s daddy’s offense, either.

McCaffrey represents another wrinkle—not in the running game alone, but in the totality of the offense. For as reliant as Shanahan’s offense has been on the running game and subsequent play-action pass, the running backs have rarely been involved in the receiving game. Here are the most productive receiving seasons by 49ers running backs (excluding fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who is not a ball-carrying threat when on the field).

49ers’ RB Receiving Production by Year

Year Player Targets Receptions Yards TD
Year Player Targets Receptions Yards TD
2017 Carlos Hyde 88 59 350 0
2018 Matt Breida 31 27 261 2
2019 Tevin Coleman 30 21 180 1
2020 Jerick McKinnon 46 33 253 1
2021 JaMycal Hasty 29 23 157 0

There has not been a single remarkable receiving back in San Francisco during Shanahan’s tenure. In just six games with the Panthers this year, McCaffrey already has more receiving yards than any individual 49ers back has had in the past four seasons.

McCaffrey’s presence in the backfield will certainly make the running game a little better, in that he is a more talented runner than Jeff Wilson or Elijah Mitchell—but that’s a marginal gain, given how well Shanahan has designed running games around different backs in different seasons. But McCaffrey will make the running game a lot more difficult to defend because he makes the entire offense more difficult to defend. When McCaffrey’s standing in the huddle instead of Wilson or Mitchell, defenses no longer get to discount those backs from their calculus. That calculus was challenging enough—defenses had to prepare for Samuel in the backfield and Juszczyk out wide and Brandon Aiyuk on the jet and six different blocking schemes and three different YAC threats. Now, another threat has entered the fold.

When the Niners get into formation, it will occasionally look the same as it always has. They’ll put Jimmy Garoppolo under center, put Juszczyk behind him, and then put McCaffrey behind him. They’ll run every run concept ever considered by man, and every play-action concept off of it, and it will be a nightmare to deal with defensively. Ho-hum.

Then the Niners will get into formation, and it will look different. Deebo will stay in the backfield; McCaffrey will hop into the slot. The Niners have done stuff like this before, but they’ve never established the running back out wide as a credible threat. With McCaffrey, the threat is dire. Defenses will have to make an impossible choice. Do you want to get numbers over the McCaffrey side, worried about a WR screen and free yardage? Do you want numbers in the box for the potential Deebo handoff? What if they throw it? Do you want to put a linebacker over McCaffrey, giving the offense a plus matchup and telling Garoppolo that you’re playing man coverage—or do you want to put the linebacker over Samuel as he releases from the backfield? Do you want to sit in zone all game and watch Shanahan call so many crossing routes that your linebackers’ heads spin off their shoulders? Do you want to go light personnel and try to get extra DBs on the field? Do you want the 49ers to run for 300 yards?

It’s a real head-scratcher.

How much a back’s receiving value matters is also a real head-scratcher—that’s why the addition of McCaffrey to San Francisco challenges so much of our understanding about how a running back affects the offense. As Pro Football Focus’s Sam Monson wrote in 2020, while running backs lined up out wide are good in theory, backs lined up at wide receiver positions and running wide receiver routes tend to produce drastically less than … well, actual wide receivers lined up at wide receiver positions running wide receiver routes. In a vacuum, the simple relocation of a pass catcher—even one of McCaffrey’s caliber—from this spot to that spot doesn’t stress defenses too much.

But in San Francisco, we won’t see that McCaffrey relocation in a vacuum—we will see it in context, coupled with the way the Niners move Samuel in and out of the backfield, and the way they generate YAC opportunities better than any other offense. We will see a compounding effect—a challenge issued to defenses that already thought dealing with the 49ers’ multiplicity was difficult enough. McCaffrey’s duality will be a force multiplier to Samuel’s duality, all baked into the duality of Shanahan’s run/play-action offense. It’s layers upon layers upon layers. It’s the lasagna offense.

Sending a lot of picks for one player at any position is a dangerous gamble. That’s before we get into McCaffrey’s injury history, expensive contract, and position: one that feels eminently replaceable. But for the king of running back replaceability to make this move, after the series of evolutions his offense has already discovered, indicates to me that this isn’t about improving on Elijah Mitchell. This is about challenging defenses in new ways. This is about winning games—winning games by using good players and cool schemes. McCaffrey gives the 49ers that, and we’re all lucky we get to watch it.