Christian McCaffrey Trade Unleashed San Francisco 49ers’ Full Potential

Just hours before Taylor Swift released Midnightsthe San Francisco 49ers acquired Christian McCaffrey via trade from the Carolina Panthers. Those two things on Oct. 20, 2022, helped set in motion two of the biggest spotlights heading into Super Bowl LVIII.

Christian McCaffrey Trade Unleashed San Francisco 49ers’ Full Potential

For now, though, let’s focus on McCaffrey and the impact of the trade.

At the time, there were questions about the value of the trade. The 49ers sent second-, third- and fourth-round picks in 2023, along with a fifth-round pick in 2024, to acquire the running back. Some saw that as too much to give up for a player at a position that doesn’t typically present much value on its own.

Benefits Far OutPerform Trade’s Costs

McCaffrey was also the most expensive running back on the market. However, that cost was driven down a bit because of the signing bonus charged to the Panthers’ cap. When the 49ers acquired McCaffrey, they were on the hook for three years and $35.6 million after 2022. For reference, this past offseason, Jonathan Taylor signed a three-year, $42 million deal with the Indianapolis Colts that set the precedent for the current running back market.

With a restructure, McCaffrey counted for just $3.4 million on the 2023 cap. He’ll cost around $14 million for the next two seasons, and he still won’t be 30 years old by the end of that deal.

That’s not a deal that is going to hold the 49ers back from building out the rest of the roster, especially with the gift of a seventh-round rookie contract at quarterback.

Since the trade, the 49ers have appeared in the NFC Championship Game twice and now reached the Super Bowl. McCaffrey, meanwhile, led the league in rushing yards and became an NFL MVP finalist for the 2023 season.

Deal Gave 49ers A Needed Jumpstart

We remember the run San Francisco has been on lately, but it’s easy to forget the 49ers were 3-3 at the time of the trade. Every other team in the NFC West also had three wins. Each of the teams had three losses, except for the Cardinals with four.

The 49ers lost McCaffrey’s first game, against the Kansas City Chiefs, in which he only played 29 percent of the offensive snaps. They did not lose again until the NFC Championship Game.

In 2022, the 49ers went from 10th in yards per play and 18th in EPA per play before the McCaffrey trade to fourth in yards per play and third in EPA per play, per TruMedia.

During the 2023 season, San Francisco ranked first in yards per play and EPA per play. McCaffrey isn’t the sole driver of that spike but it’s impossible to argue against it’s been a completely different offense since his addition.

McCaffrey going to another team might not have made the same type of impact as he has with Kyle Shanahan and the 49ers. The same could be said for the 49ers going after a different running back. But this trade became a perfect blend of player and scheme that has served as a force multiplier all over the offense for the past year and a half.

Passing Game Sees Biggest Impact

So much of McCaffrey’s impact over the 2022 season and into 2023 came in the passing game. The 49ers already had a versatile group of receivers but adding McCaffrey to the mix opened up more options for everyone.

Deebo Samuel first started getting significant snaps in the backfield in desperation to have someone there after the 49ers suffered several injuries at running back during the 2021 season. But McCaffrey made that more of a weapon with purpose. It’s nice to have one versatile player, but if other pieces in the offense can’t move around too, then there’s still a staticness to the whole operation.

The 49ers unleashed an offense where anyone could be anywhere at any given time. The same personnel groupings service all of that. Much of that was done in 21 personnel, which featured McCaffrey, Samuel, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Kyle Juszczyk.

Here are three plays from San Francisco’s 2022 wild-card game against the Seattle Seahawks that featured a few different looks the offense could give from the same personnel groupings.

The first starts with a Samuel-McCaffrey split backfield:

Another starts in an I-formation with Samuel behind Juszczyk while McCaffrey is out wide:

Then another with McCaffrey in motion and Samuel as the lone player in the backfield:

McCaffrey doesn’t have to be involved in the play for his presence to make an impact. Here’s a play from this season that becomes an Aiyuk reception. McCaffrey starts in the backfield with Aiyuk as the lone receiver to the right side of the offense.

When McCaffrey motions to the outside, the corner in zone slides over, which puts a linebacker across from Aiyuk who was able to find a hole in the middle of the field to pick up a first down on the play.

So much of this works because McCaffrey is a legitimate threat when lined up outside or in the slot.

49ers’ Creative PlayCalling Provides Opportunities

We hear a lot about running backs who can be used as receivers with traditional wide receiver routes, but McCaffrey is the rare back who can follow that up by being deployed that way on the field.

Here is a look at the targets and receiving yards for running backs when lined up in the slot or outside during the 2023 season. McCaffrey is in a class of his own.

This helps because of how often the 49ers go empty. In 2023, Brock Purdy had the second-highest rate of empty sets in the league at 21.6 percent. When in empty, Purdy was fourth in EPA per play among quarterbacks. No quarterback threw to the intermediate area of the field from empty more often than Purdy (25.3 percent) and so much of that was taking advantage of the spacing stressed from McCaffrey lining up out wide.

The 49ers have also figured out a number of ways to get the ball in McCaffrey’s hands from different spots on the field.

This season, San Francisco has used McCaffrey on this shuffle motion that gets him out in a slot alignment but still in the backfield. Often McCaffrey was able to use that to get into an option route or an angle route out of the backfield. It put so much stress on defenders — typically linebackers — trying to cover McCaffrey out of the backfield.

But the Niners also had different looks off that motion, like this one for a cross-field touchdown against Tampa Bay:

Then there was a deep shot against the Eagles:

Enhanced Running Game Makes Offense More Lethal

Much of McCaffrey’s value came from expanding the passing game, especially over the second half of the 2022 season. Still, the running game came together for 2023 while McCaffrey finished first in rushing yards.

The ability to create explosive runs accomplished this. Only De’Von Achane had a higher rate of runs that gained at least 10 yards but Achane faced a much easier path to those runs. A total of 38.8 percent of Achane’s rushing attempts came against light boxes, while just 17.3 percent of McCaffrey’s did. 16.5 percent of Achane’s runs came against stacked boxes while that rate was 42.3 percent for McCaffrey.

Gaining value on the ground while the defense has to be hyper-aware of all of the other moving pieces is an added element that makes the San Francisco offense so dangerous.

McCaffrey’s addition opened up this offense to its fullest potential, and now, a year and a half later, San Francisco is on the verge of a Super Bowl victory. McCaffrey isn’t the singular reason the team is here but it’s hard to envision the 49ers on this run without him.

An aggressive trade before the 2022 deadline has only continued to look more promising for the team that made the deal.

Related Posts

Mike McCarthy discusses what he expects from Ezekiel Elliott

UDFA QB John Rhys Plumlee Reveals Why He Chose Steelers

With John Rhys Plumlee seeing action at wide receiver at UCF, there was speculation that he could play wide receiver in the NFL, but he put that…

Zach Frazier explains wearing No. 54 with Pittsburgh Steelers

Zach Frazier can’t help his toughness. It’s embedded in his soul. The Steelers rookie loved Pittsburgh’s physical style of play when he was growing up in West Virginia….

Vikings’ Kevin O’Connell Strikes Down Scrutiny Facing Rookie J.J. McCarthy

Thіѕ ѕtаɡe of the NFL offѕeаѕon іѕ fіlled wіth hіɡhlіɡhtѕ аnd lowlіɡhtѕ of pаdleѕѕ prаctіceѕ — whіch Mіnneѕotа Vіkіnɡѕ coаch Kevіn O’Connell аrɡued to not reаd too…

Justin Simmons has 1 classy request to fans about Broncos rookie

The Denver Broncoѕ hаve ɡotten themѕelveѕ іnto а trіcky cаp ѕіtuаtіon. Denver trаded ѕіɡnіfіcаnt аѕѕetѕ for QB Ruѕѕell Wіlѕon from the Seаttle Seаhаwkѕ two yeаrѕ аɡo. The…

Coveted Free Agent Receiver Turned Down Kansas City Chiefs

Zаy Joneѕ ѕіɡned wіth the Arіzonа Cаrdіnаlѕ on Frіdаy, but before joіnіnɡ the Cаrdіnаlѕ on а one-yeаr deаl, he hаd drаwn іntereѕt from the Kаnѕаѕ Cіty Chіefѕ….