by Evan Bruner
Shock waves were sent across the NFL Thursday night when Carolina Panthers star running back Christian McCaffrey was traded to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for a 2023 second-round pick, 2023 third-round pick, 2023 fourth-round pick, and 2024 fifth-round pick. On the surface, this trade makes a lot of sense. The Panthers are a rebuilding team in desperate need of extra draft capital and financial flexibility, while the 49ers are hoping to put together another deep postseason run and had the draft capital to acquire another star.
However, football is a complex and nuanced game that often requires fans to look at things through a microscope to get a total understanding. For the fans, this is a great move. We want to see the most exciting players on the most exciting teams. A player like McCaffrey, who’s spent his entire career playing for an underperforming Carolina squad, hasn’t had the opportunity to play for a competitor. For him, this trade is a massive win. Going from Matt Rhule to Kyle Shanahan in only two weeks is like trading in a rundown Yugo for a Ferrari. But for the 49ers, this move comes with more questions than answers.
To understand the trade, you first have to understand the 49ers’ offense. In a league that seems to favor the passing attack more each year, San Francisco has insisted on keeping a steady balance of run and pass plays. In the two years the 49ers have made the playoffs under Shanahan, they finished second and fourth in the league in run rate. At first glance, this might make the McCaffrey trade seem like the perfect move. A team that wants to run the ball more than most now has a running back that can run the ball better than almost anyone. But this actually minimizes one of Shanahan’s best skills.
For years now, the 49ers have been able to put together an effective rushing attack regardless of who’s in the backfield. From day three draft picks to players on the veteran minimum, San Francisco’s running game success has proven to be independent of rushing talent. In other words, the 49ers just gave up four draft picks and tens of millions of dollars in cap space for a player who doesn’t seem to fill a massive need. Sure, it’s a talent upgrade, but is it enough of one to justify the significant resources spent by the 49ers?
At 26, no one would consider McCaffrey to be old, but given what we know about how running backs age, this seems to be more a short-term investment than a long-term one. If we’re being optimistic and assuming McCaffrey can stay healthy, which is far from a given, the 49ers are probably looking a 2-3 more seasons of high-level play from him. For a team like the Buffalo Bills that’s clearly in Super Bowl contention, this type of player would make a lot of sense. But for a team with an undefined championship window like the 49ers, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher. This team’s future entirely rides on Trey Lance, who has only a handful of pro starts.
Every position in the NFL is valuable to a degree. With that said, the value from position to position isn’t evenly distributed. Positions like quarterback, edge rusher, and offensive tackle are often categorized as ceiling raisers, while positions like running back and defensive tackle are seen as floor raisers. Essentially, a good running back can improve a team’s worst-case scenario but rarely works toward improving their best. To illustrate this point, look no further than the most recent starting running backs on Super Bowl-winning teams. Cam Akers, Leonard Fournette, Damien Williams, Sony Michel, and Jay Ajayi make up the last five. In fact, you’d have to go back to the 2013 season to find the last time a pro bowl running back won a Super Bowl.
Although McCaffrey certainly makes the 49ers better, I’m not sure he really changes their bottom line. Even if everything clicks right away, it doesn’t guarantee that San Francisco will win their division, much less the NFC. It doesn’t fix their hole at quarterback or secondary and certainly doesn’t fix some of the questionable late-game decisions Shanahan has recently made. Not every move has to result in a Super Bowl to be worth it, but San Francisco will have to accomplish a lot in the next few years to make this move look like a good one.