The 49ers paid a high price to acquire former All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey in October but, just under two months into his San Francisco career, it’s tough to argue he hasn’t already justified the outlay.
San Francisco gave up a second, third and a fourth-round pick in the 2023 draft as well as a fifth in 2024 in the trade that brought McCaffrey over from the Panthers.
Few are likely to have spent much time thinking about those draft picks given the impact McCaffrey has had since making his debut for the Niners in Week 8.
Simply put, McCaffrey has transformed a 49er offense that looked stagnant at times across the first seven weeks of the season.
The 49ers have scored at least 30 points in four of their eight games following McCaffrey’s arrival. Heading into the Week 15 win over the Seahawks, the 49ers ranked first in Football Outsiders DVOA —a ranking of course influenced by an outstanding defense that leads the NFL in the same metric — and second in DVOA on offense since Week 8, McCaffrey’s second game.
And it was McCaffrey who was San Francisco’s workhorse as the 49ers clinched the NFC West title with a 21-13 win in Seattle, touching the ball 32 times for 138 scrimmage yards and a rushing touchdown.
McCaffrey’s influence on the Niners’ offensive efficiency has been substantial but has not solely been limited to the ground game. Indeed, arguably the best pass-catching back in the NFL has vastly improved the 49er passing game, which ranks second in dropback EPA per play since Week 8, per rbsdm.com.
The former Stanford star has, as many expected, expanded San Francisco’s passing game menu, enabling the 49ers to throw the ball out effectively from a plethora of personnel groupings.
McCaffrey allows the Niners to get five pass-catchers out into the pattern out of empty-backfield looks and give the quarterback an outlet against pressure. In such situations, he has not solely served as a quick checkdown, but as a legitimate mismatch on downfield routes, such as the one that saw him haul in a 27-yard touchdown pass from Brock Purdy in the Week 14 blowout of the Buccaneers.
Additionally, McCaffrey has given the 49ers unpredictability out of heavier 21 and 22 personnel groupings, weaponizing both their short passing game and their rushing attack out of such looks, his ability to make the most of the holes the offensive line and Kyle Juszczyk and George Kittle open with his tremendous burst and change of direction ability facilitating his 119-yard performance on the ground against Tampa Bay.
With the 49ers missing ‘wide back’ Deebo Samuel due to ankle injury, San Francisco still succeeded in manipulating the Seattle defense through the respect McCaffrey demands, most notably on Purdy’s second touchdown throw to Kittle, who was his quarterback’s fourth read in the progression.
As Kyle Shanahan described it in his post-game press conference: “A number of people jumped Christian and they left Kittle all alone.”
Purdy still made some massive plays in the loudest and most hostile road environment in the league, but his task in helping the Niners clinch a postseason berth was made easier not only by Shanahan’s play-calling but the reliability, versatility and gravity of McCaffrey in the receiving game.
McCaffrey joined the 49ers after a loss to the Falcons and his debut was a dispiriting defeat to the Chiefs. Since then, he has been one of the primary catalysts for a surge that has ensured San Francisco will host at least one home playoff game this season.
Still only 26, the McCaffrey trade will be judged over his impact in the coming seasons but, in the context of this campaign, a division-clinching performance in Seattle makes the case for it being an unqualified success difficult to dispute.
“When you can run the ball and catch checkdowns and also be the main guy on some routes, that’s a great weapon to have,” said Shanahan after the Week 15 win.
Regardless of what happens in the postseason, the 49ers will enjoy reaping the rewards of an astute trade to acquire that weapon for some time to come.