What, exactly, are the 49ers building? Barnwell makes sense of the Christian McCaffrey deal, and what’s next
The 49ers’ 44-23 loss to the Chiefs on Sunday reinforced both sides of the debate surrounding Thursday’s dramatic trade for Christian McCaffrey. If you loved the deal — which saw San Francisco give up 2023 second-, third- and fourth-round picks plus a fifth-rounder in 2024 — you saw flashes suggesting the running back could be a special talent in the San Francisco offense, as he turned his 10 touches into 62 yards and three first downs. The 49ers didn’t win, but they were much worse on offense after halftime, when McCaffrey played just four snaps. Once he has learned the offense and can be an every-down player, the possibilities for what this offense can do seem endless.
And yet, the Niners lost by 21 points in a game in which the Chiefs picked on their offensive line and secondary, the two weakest parts of their roster. They averaged 5.6 yards per play with McCaffrey on the field and 6.4 yards per play without him. Over in North Carolina, the Panthers upset the Buccaneers in a game in which the combination of Chuba Hubbard and D’Onta Foreman, who were afterthoughts behind the 26-year-old McCaffrey in the offense, combined for 218 yards from scrimmage on 28 touches.
The McCaffrey trade is one of the most fascinating deals we’ve seen in the NFL in recent years, even as the league has gotten more and more trade-friendly. The upside for the 49ers is stratospheric and could give them one of the best sets of playmakers the league has ever seen. The downside is that he is an injury-prone, short-term rental for a team now below .500 and already was without its first-round pick in the 2023 draft. And unlike some trades, where those possibilities are remote, the best- and worst-case scenarios for this deal appear to be entirely plausible for Kyle Shanahan and his 49ers.
Having given the deal a couple of days of thought, I wanted to answer a few of the questions I saw in the immediate conversations after it. Several of the comparisons I’ve seen don’t hold up under much scrutiny. Others are more reasonable. Leaving aside what we saw Sunday, let’s get into the key questions from the McCaffrey trade, starting with the positives:
Jump to a question:
Is McCaffrey still at his peak?
Could he be a rental for the 49ers?
Could this mean another trade is likely?
Should San Francisco have gone all-in?
Is McCaffrey really a perfect fit for this offense?
To the extent that any running back can be that sort of difference-maker, yes. Before the season, when I wrote about quarterback Trey Lance, I mentioned the idea of how Shanahan wanted to fill his offense with playmakers capable of doing just about anything with the ball in their hands on a snap-to-snap basis. (Of course, this was before Lance went down with his fractured right ankle in September.)
Shanahan wants the plausible deniability of being able to line up in any personnel grouping and get to any of his rushing or passing concepts. His offense is the closest thing the NFL has to the sort of positionless basketball we’ve seen the NBA adopt over the past 15 years. Only in a Shanahan offense can his top wide receiver turn into the team’s lead running back at midseason, as Deebo Samuel did a year ago. Only the 49ers have their fullback running wheel routes for big plays up the sideline. (Well, until teams that hired Shanahan assistants started emulating him). Every eligible receiver in a Shanahan offense should be capable of doing anything in that offense on a given play.
From that perspective, McCaffrey makes total sense. For whatever he offers as a traditional running back, his output as a receiver in Carolina was remarkable. During his five-year run as the lead back for the Panthers, he was the focal point of the passing attack.
With middling quarterback play for most of his tenure, McCaffrey drew targets on nearly 29% of his routes and averaged 2.1 yards per route run. To put that in context, those numbers are right in line with what Chargers wideout Keenan Allen has done over the same time frame on a route-by-route basis, and Allen has had better quarterback play without adding any significant rushing value. Those numbers also haven’t diminished over the past several seasons, when McCaffrey has struggled to stay healthy.
As a receiver, his ability to create mismatches is already obvious. Just as the Saints have done for years with Alvin Kamara, the Panthers loved running McCaffrey out of the backfield and getting him matched up on option routes against slower linebackers in space. The Rams spammed that choice concept with Cooper Kupp to create completions last season.
With the 49ers preferring to use formations with Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle on the field, teams have to match that sort of blocking ability by playing their base defense. Playing base defense means McCaffrey (or George Kittle) will be up against a linebacker in coverage on passing plays. In an offense that wants to give quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo easy answers and its receivers opportunities to make plays after the catch, it’s easy to envision the 49ers incorporating plays in which McCaffrey is the primary read in a passing progression, let alone whatever else he’ll offer on screens and checkdowns.
Is this McCaffrey the same guy we saw at his peak?
As a runner, I’m not sure McCaffrey is a difference-maker in quite the same way. The 2018-19 superstar model of him exceeded expectations, generating 372 rushing yards over expectation (RYOE) across 497 tracked carries, for an average of 0.8 RYOE per attempt. By that model, which comes from NFL Next Gen Stats, the suggestion is he gained nearly a full yard more per run than what an average back would have gained with the same blocking against the same defenders in the same situations.
Over the ensuing three seasons, though, McCaffrey hasn’t been as productive. With 243 tracked attempts, he has generated minus-14 RYOE, suggesting he’s been about as productive as a league-average back on his carries. He’ll be taking over the lead back role from Jeff Wilson Jr., who has generated 117 RYOE across 88 carries this season, which ranks eighth in the NFL on a per-rush basis.
It’s possible the 49ers actually take a step backward in their running game with McCaffrey in the mix. They also were using regular carries from Samuel, who had generated 42 RYOE on 24 carries. If they use McCaffrey as something close to their every-down back, they’ll be returning Samuel to a role where he’s strictly a wide receiver, which is less valuable than the role Samuel was in before 2021.
It’s likely that we’ll see the 49ers mix and match backs and retain a role for Samuel and Wilson in the offense, but that they’ll use McCaffrey more than they used Wilson as their primary back. There’s nothing wrong with doing so, but it makes the trade harder to justify if he’s touching the ball 12-16 times per game than it would if he was expecting to take 20-24 touches.
During that run in 2018-19, McCaffrey was nearly an every-down presence for the Panthers, playing more than 90% of the offensive snaps in both campaigns. To put that into context, across those two seasons, he played 1,928 offensive snaps. The only other back within 350 snaps of the second-generation back was Ezekiel Elliott, who racked up 1,745 snaps for the Cowboys.
Between the two subsequent seasons of 2020 and 2021, Elliott was the only back to top 1,400 offensive snaps, and Chicago’s David Montgomery the only other one with more than 1,300 snaps. McCaffrey’s workload in terms of snap count was an enormous outlier at the time and only looks even more preposterous with a few years of context. And yet, at the same time, he was playing 85% of the offensive snaps for Carolina before the trade.
It’s impossible to attribute injuries solely to workload — and we know that backs who have smaller workloads can also get injured — but I have to imagine McCaffrey’s best chance of staying healthy for an entire season is playing less often on a week-to-week basis. Shanahan has been forced to rotate backs in and out of the lineup because of injury, but we’ve seen him create opportunities for multiple players on his roster. It’s clear Wilson should still figure into the offense. The Niners brought back Tevin Coleman off the street and gave him meaningful snaps in October. They used a third-round pick on Tyrion Davis-Price and should get back Elijah Mitchell, who was their lead back for most of 2021, from injured reserve later this season.
Even if McCaffrey is the primary back, I’d expect this to be a rotation where plenty of guys get touches. This leads to the next question …
Why does Shanahan keep investing in running backs?
I said I would answer the questions, but I didn’t say the answers would all be satisfying. I don’t know why Shanahan insists on making expensive additions at the position. Going back to his father Mike’s time in Denver, the Shanahan offense has been creating valuable backs out of mid-to-late-round picks and undrafted free agents for 25 years. That list includes Terrell Davis, Mike Anderson, Arian Foster and Devonta Freeman.
Even more notably, we’ve seen this effect during Shanahan’s time as the coach in San Francisco. In 2018, the 49ers signed Jerick McKinnon to a massive, over-market deal in free agency, only for the former Vikings back to lose two seasons to knee injuries before struggling after his return. Coleman, signed to a smaller deal the next year, averaged 3.5 yards per carry during his first stint with the team.
I don’t think we can blame Shanahan for the injuries, of course, but his priority draft picks at the position have been fiascoes. The 49ers traded up in 2017 for fourth-rounder Joe Williams, who never played an NFL snap. They used a third-round pick in 2021 on Trey Sermon, who immediately landed in Shanahan’s doghouse and was dumped after one season. Davis-Price, their 2022 third-rounder, doesn’t have a path to playing time with McCaffrey in the fold.
Over that time frame, Shanahan’s most productive backs all have been acquired on the cheap. Matt Breida was an undrafted free agent. Raheem Mostert was signed off the Chicago practice squad as a special-teamer before Shanahan arrived. Wilson was an undrafted free agent. Mitchell was a sixth-round pick. Even without those 25 years of preceding evidence, if you look at what has actually worked for the 49ers on the field, it’s been the backs who were afterthoughts with something to prove.
This often gets used to suggest running backs are all interchangeable and that teams can plug in anybody and succeed in a Shanahan-style offense. That isn’t fair. What I would say, though, is that there are more good running backs in and around the league than there are opportunities for running backs to get touches.
I think it’s clear that McCaffrey offers a level of receiving aptitude that other backs on San Francisco’s roster simply do not have. I would also argue there are backs who can catch passes available in free agency or on the bottom half of rosters who could also have been acquired for far cheaper and still offered passing-game help. Devontae Booker, who was solid for the Giants last season, is out of the league. Ameer Abdullah, Antonio Gibson and Cam Akers can catch the ball and wouldn’t cost much to acquire, while Duke Johnson is on the Buffalo practice squad.
McCaffrey is better than all of those guys, of course, but is he that much better to justify the four picks the 49ers paid to acquire him? And can the Niners afford to have him on their roster in 2023? The answer might depend on whether they perceive McCaffrey as a running back at all.
What could happen with McCaffrey after the season?
The 49ers had only a few million dollars in cap space when they made this deal, but it was easy to get a trade done and fit McCaffrey under their 2022 salary cap. That’s because the Panthers restructured several deals in March to create short-term cap space, when they were attempting to trade for quarterback Deshaun Watson.
One of the deals they restructured belonged to McCaffrey, who had $7.4 million of his base salary converted into a bonus. He got his money up front, while the Panthers spread the bonus over four years for cap purposes. As a result, he had only a little over $1 million in base salary on his deal in 2022, and with the Panthers paying out the first six weeks of the deal, San Francisco only is on the hook for $690,000 this year.
Next year, that changes. McCaffrey has no guaranteed money left on his contract, but he’s owed $12 million in 2023, $12 million in 2024 and $12.2 million in 2025. After two years of injuries, it’s safe to say he wouldn’t get that much on the open market if he hit free agency. With the 2023 free agent running back class set to include Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, Kareem Hunt, David Montgomery, Miles Sanders and others, it’s unlikely McCaffrey would be in position to get more than $6-7 million per year on a new deal.
The 49ers have flexibility, but they’re left in an awkward position. They’re projected to have about $6 million in cap space with McCaffrey on the books, but that’s without new deals for Garoppolo, safety Jimmie Ward, tackle Mike McGlinchey, kicker Robbie Gould and several other key players, let alone making additions elsewhere. General manager John Lynch might choose to let some of these veterans move on, but they also need cap space to go after replacements.
Field Yates breaks down why he still has Christian McCaffrey as a top-five fantasy running after a solid 49ers debut.
If McCaffrey looks like a superstar, they’ll happily pay the $12 million and go year-by-year. If he falls anywhere short of that standard, San Francisco would probably want to get him down on a reduced salary, which won’t be a fun negotiation. His representation will know the 49ers won’t want to lose a player months after trading four draft picks to acquire him. The Niners will know he will get less money on the open market and wait for him to change his mind.
Sometimes, this works out in a deal that fits both sides, as it did with Garoppolo and the 49ers this offseason. Stuck in a staring contest while Garoppolo recovered from shoulder surgery and the trade market cratered, the two sides agreed on a pay cut in August that offered Garoppolo the upside to make significant money if he regained his starting job, as he eventually did because of Lance’s injury. With McCaffrey’s long-standing relationship with the Shanahan family dating back to Denver and the possibility of staying out in the Bay Area, it’s possible he will be amenable to a renegotiation. It’s also possible — maybe even likely — that this is a one-and-done deal.
One way to make the financial math work for the 49ers comes to mind. I’ve talked about how significant and valuable McCaffrey’s role is in the passing game. What if the 49ers see him primarily as a receiver as opposed to a running back? They used him more as a traditional back Sunday, but it’s easier to give him those initial touches before he learns the playbook as a runner as opposed to taking snaps as a receiver. I don’t think he will be taking 80% of his touches as a runner for the majority of his time in San Francisco.
In the market for running backs, McCaffrey’s $12 million salary would make him one of the league’s highest-paid backs. As a receiver, though, that’s midtier money. Three years and $36 million is in line what Corey Davis and Curtis Samuel got paid in free agency before the 2021 season, and it wouldn’t even have as many guarantees. If McCaffrey is going to be targeted seven times per game and continues to be as efficient in the passing game, you could make the case he should be treated like a receiver, regardless of what he contributes as a runner.
Even if that happens, can Shanahan afford to pay McCaffrey that much? Samuel’s cap hit is only $8.7 million next year, but that jumps to $28.6 million in 2024. Offensive tackle Trent Williams has the largest contract for an offensive lineman in league history. Kittle is making $15 million per year. Edge rusher Nick Bosa is in his fifth-year option next season and should get a massive new deal, although the Niners will also probably reduce his $17.9 million cap hit as part of that extension. Wideout Brandon Aiyuk is eligible for an extension and a significant raise next offseason. The 49ers can probably squeeze it in if they want to keep McCaffrey, but it’s cash and cap space that could be applied to more vulnerable spots on their roster.
There’s another team that seemed to ignore the cap, added key players last year and won the Super Bowl. Let’s discuss the 49ers’ NFC West rivals …
Aren’t the 49ers just doing what the Rams did?
No. On the most basic level, the Rams added veterans to their roster last year and have traded draft picks for players, both last season and during their run in the Sean McVay era. This isn’t the same sort of deal for the 49ers. We could do a whole other article on the Rams and how they’ve used draft picks to trade for players, but there are a few key differences between what L.A. did and what the 49ers are doing.
For one, some of the additions the Rams have made haven’t been trades at all. Los Angeles signed receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and safety Eric Waddle as free agents last season for the veterans minimum, without having to give up any draft picks.
When the Rams have packaged first- or second-round picks, it always has been to acquire players who play premium positions by the NFL’s salary structure. Those deals have been to go after quarterbacks (Matthew Stafford and, before McVay arrived, Jared Goff), wide receivers (Brandin Cooks and Sammy Watkins), edge rusher (Von Miller) and cornerbacks (Marcus Peters and Jalen Ramsey).
Those are four of the five most valuable positions. All of those players besides Miller and Stafford were acquired while they were on rookie deals, which reduced the financial exposure and made it likely they were acquiring players entering the prime of their respective careers.
Running back is 10th out of the league’s 14 broad positional definitions when it comes to contract value for its top 15 players, ahead of only centers, tight ends, kickers and punters. McCaffrey is in his sixth season in the league and already has nearly 1,300 pro touches under his belt. Given what we know about running back aging curves, it’s more likely he is closer to the end of his career than he is to its beginning.
The Rams also have been in position to get compensatory picks when Watkins, Miller and Beckham left after their contracts expired, although the Miller pick was canceled out by the Allen Robinson signing, and Beckham’s injury prevented the Rams from realizing any sort of compensatory return when he didn’t sign a deal in free agency. As much as the Rams have playfully adopted the mantra of doing something very inappropriate to draft picks, they often stockpile midround selections and use them to supplement their roster.
During McVay’s time with the team, the Rams have had between eight and 11 draft picks in each of their six drafts. After trading away their first-rounder in the Lance deal and their second-, third-, and fourth-round picks for McCaffrey, the 49ers project to have seven picks in next year’s draft, just two of which will come before Round 5. That’s far less draft capital than what the Rams have worked with in the past.
San Francisco will still have two third-round picks by virtue of the compensatory selections they received when assistant coaches Robert Saleh and Mike McDaniel were hired by other teams. I’ve seen it suggested the extra picks mean the 49ers can somehow better afford making this sort of deal because they have extra ammunition in the draft, which doesn’t add up. As former NFL executive Joe Banner once put it, “Once the house money is in your pocket, it’s no longer house money.”
When a team makes a trade like this by giving up unknown draft picks for a player, it’s often too easy to ignore the other effects of the deal. By acquiring McCaffrey, the 49ers are incurring the opportunity cost of possibly paying him $12 million in cap and cash in 2023, which is money that could go to a player at another position.
More notably, by trading away three draft picks, they are missing out on low-cost additions who could supplement their roster at a fraction of their actual market value. A year ago, the Niners got an All-Pro season from Samuel, a second-rounder who was making just $1.1 million. This season, they have seen fifth-rounder Talanoa Hufanga break out at safety while making a mere $825,000. When a team trades away those picks, it misses out on the opportunity to find bargains for three-plus years and then either has to spend more money in free agency to grab replacements and/or use lesser players to fill those roles.
Sam Acho and Ryan Clark discuss how acquiring Christian McCaffrey from the Panthers improves the 49ers’ Super Bowl chances.
Different teams have different ideas of what draft picks are worth, but even if the 49ers just pay McCaffrey the minimum this year and get him to take a pay cut next season, they’re incurring a significant cost by trading away second-, third-, fourth-round picks in 2023. By Chase Stuart’s chart, even if the 49ers finish with the 24th pick in each round, trading those picks is the equivalent of shipping off the 12th overall pick in a typical draft. My estimate based on trades is that those picks would probably be worth about $15-20 million or so if they could deal them for cash.
Even if they wanted to add veterans right now, the Niners could have used those picks to trade for help along their offensive line or bring in a cornerback. They could have traded for an actual wide receiver as opposed to McCaffrey. Would this have been a better deal to make for Pittsburgh’s Chase Claypool? Would the 49ers have been better off with Gibson and William Jackson while likely paying less in draft capital to land the two Commanders? McCaffrey is going to have to be a difference-maker in 2022 to make this worth their while.
Having said that this isn’t really a Rams style of deal, it’s worth noting the closest bidder to the 49ers in these negotiations was reportedly … the Rams, who wanted to add him to replace Cam Akers. I would have these same questions if the Rams made this deal, but I also think they needed a back more than the 49ers, given Akers’ struggles and the presence of Wilson on the San Francisco roster.
About those picks, though …
Could this trade tell us something about another deal to come?
The McCaffrey deal got me thinking about Lance and his future with the team. The reports during Lance’s second training camp were mixed at best, and while he played only five quarters before going down injured, he didn’t look great in the rain at Chicago. We still don’t have enough public information to make any sort of meaningful inferences about Lance’s abilities as a quarterback, but the 49ers have far more reps and private information on which to base their opinion after evaluating him in practice over the past two seasons.
On one hand, trading for McCaffrey makes more sense if Lance is the quarterback, given that he’ll be relatively cheap in 2023 and possibly still in 2024. Lance’s fifth-year option doesn’t come due until 2025, meaning the 49ers can easier surround him with plenty of expensive talent next season, even given the other contracts they have to complete this upcoming offseason.
On the other, one way to get back draft capital back is to trade Lance. If the 49ers think he isn’t the quarterback they believed they were getting in 2021, the haul they sent away to acquire him is a sunk cost. There would still be teams interested in acquiring Lance to be their quarterback of the future, even if he struggled with the 49ers.
In this scenario, which would probably require a deep playoff run and excellent work on the offense, the Niners would re-sign Garoppolo to an extension this offseason. Lance still probably would net a late first-round pick or early second-round pick in return. I will admit the trade I keep coming back to — given Atlanta’s desire to run the ball and Shanahan’s stockpiling of positionless playmakers — is a swap of Lance for tight end Kyle Pitts. I’m not sure that solves the draft capital problem, but it’s fun to argue about.
This is more of a hypothetical than anything else, and the Niners could use a player such as Aiyuk in trade to replenish their draft capital instead. Either way, given how much they’ve shipped off, it’s important for the 49ers to try to get an additional draft pick or two this offseason.
Was this a fair price to pay for the 49ers?
ESPN’s Jeremy Fowler reported last week that the Panthers were asking for a “first-round pick or more” in return for their star back. In the end, the 49ers didn’t have a first-round pick to send the Panthers in 2023, so the deal had to be for the second-, third-, and fourth-round picks. Those selections add up to a first-rounder by most draft charts, so the Panthers ended up getting something close to their initial requests.
Was that too much to pay? Given McCaffrey’s injury history, the time it will take to get him up to full swing on the offense and the uncertainty surrounding what will happen to him in 2023, this would be on the exorbitant end. This is more than the Rams paid for Miller last year (second- and third-rounders), and that was with the Broncos paying down his contract to do the deal. Miller was older and had his own injury issues in the past, but he played a premium position and was likely to yield a compensatory pick.
The most like-for-like comparison stylistically might be Marshall Faulk. Amid a contract dispute in 1999, the Colts sent the 26-year-old Faulk to the Rams for second- and fifth-round picks. The Rams won that deal, as Faulk won three consecutive Offensive Player of the Year awards after arriving in St. Louis and took home league MVP in 2000. Moving to the Greatest Show on Turf, his receiving volume and rushing efficiency spiked.
At the same time, Faulk might not be a great comparison for McCaffrey’s overall value. The Colts dealt Faulk in the offseason, giving the future Hall of Famer an entire offseason to learn the playbook. Faulk didn’t have a significant injury history, missing just three games during his first five seasons. He was coming off a season in which he had made the Pro Bowl, been second-team All-Pro and finished fourth in the Offensive Player of the Year balloting. Faulk was also playing in an era in which backs were regarded as scarcer and more valuable than they are now, and when teams ran the ball more often in neutral situations.
A second-round pick probably would have been about as much as I would have been willing to give to get this deal done. Third-, fourth- and fifth-round picks might not seem like much, but sometimes, those picks turn into stars. The path for this deal to be a success is too narrow given all the factors involved. The Niners would have lost McCaffrey to the Rams or another team in that scenario, but getting the most prominent player available doesn’t always guarantee success. The Rams eventually won a Super Bowl with Ramsey, but when they traded two first-round picks for him in 2019, they dumped Peters for peanuts and eventually missed the postseason.
Naturally, the Rams’ success likely has raised the price of veteran players in the trade market during the season. If the Miller deal didn’t lead to a Super Bowl last season, maybe this trade gets done for a second-round pick and a fifth-rounder, like the Faulk swap. We’ll see if that holds up as more veterans move between now and the trade deadline on Nov. 1.
Should the 49ers have gone all-in for McCaffrey?
All-in is a relative term, but the 49ers traded away most of the assets they had available this offseason. Most of their core players are on deals that would be difficult to trade, and they can’t deal Lance until the offseason. Unless they were willing to give up significant draft capital just to keep McCaffrey from the Rams, this is a deal Shanahan and Lynch made to try to win this season.
While I did pick the 49ers to make it to the Super Bowl before the season, it’s a little weird to see them making that move now. They were 3-3 when they acquired McCaffrey and are now 3-4. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) loves them, projecting them to have a 63.4% of winning the NFC West before losing to the Chiefs. Now, FPI has dropped them to 52%. When the Rams traded for Miller last season, they were 7-1 and virtual locks to make it to the postseason, although they were in a divisional race with the Cardinals.
Then again, when the Rams made that trade a year ago, the Niners were 3-4, too. They proceeded to sneak into the playoffs by beating the Rams in Week 18 and then came within a drive of beating L.A. again and advancing back to the Super Bowl. The NFC looked like a wide-open mess before Sunday, and the conference looks even more wild after the Buccaneers and Packers lost. Being 3-4 isn’t down and out in a conference where just five of 16 teams have a winning record.
I wouldn’t have made this deal, but selfishly, I’m happy the Niners decided to do it for one reason: It’s fun. Lynch and Shanahan run their roster like people who really wants to see what Shanahan would do with an exciting offensive playmaker, and while that isn’t always the best thing for the organization, it makes for fun tape. Outside of fantasy football considerations, there was no point in having McCaffrey rack up garbage-time targets for a Panthers team heading nowhere. I’m not sure the 49ers will look back and love this trade, but it’s likely we’ll end up seeing very entertaining moments with McCaffrey wearing red and gold.