Somewhere between the teaser of Taylor Swift music videos and the release of Taylor Swift’s new album (this is how we measure time now, correct?), the San Francisco 49ers traded for running back Christian McCaffrey. The compensation will be 2023 second-, third-, and fourth-round picks, plus a fifth-round pick in 2024.
That is, of course, a lot to give up for a running back with an extensive injury history. That’s where any analysis for the trade has to begin (and for some will end) but let’s dive into what’s going on with this move.
This is another push for the 49ers to get the most out of the roster as currently constructed. Every team in the NFC West currently has three wins, though as of this writing the Arizona Cardinals are still a half-game behind with a 3-4 record while the rest of the division is 3-3. Both Football Outsiders and FiveThirtyEight have San Francisco with a 67% chance to make the playoffs and between a 51-52% chance to win the division.
It’s possible the 49ers believe they’re close enough this season to push some more chips into the middle of the table to add a special type of talent that could change the way they play offense. The 49ers already have one of the best defenses in the league, when healthy, and an offense that could use a little spark in the run game.
On running back rushes this season, the 49ers rank 28th in EPA per rush, according to TruMedia. Only 32.5% of San Francisco’s running back attempts have gained positive EPA, the worst rate in the league. The question, of course, is whether McCaffrey will instantly help, especially with an offensive line that has experienced some issues this season. The line ranks 17th in ESPN’s run block win rate but 29th in blown block rate on runs according to Sports Info Solutions.
Strictly as a runner, McCaffrey hasn’t been all that different from the 49ers’ leading rusher, Jeff Wilson, on the surface.
Christian McCaffrey vs Jeff Wilson, 2022
data per TruMedia
|Player||Rush||Yards||YPC||Success Rate||Rush of 10+%||Rush of 0 or negative %||Yards Before Contact||Yards After Contact|
Even with some of the offensive line issues in San Francisco, Wilson has averaged more yards before contact than McCaffrey but McCaffrey has gained more after contact, which could be a plus. While that might appear that McCaffrey has done more to gain the tough yards, Wilson leads in Rushing Yards Over Expectation, per Next Gen Stats. Wilson has gained 1.17 rushing yards over expectation per rush while McCaffrey has gained 0.11. However, they’re both similar in the rate of carries that gain more yards than expected — 39.5% for Wilson and 37.3% for McCaffrey.
Where McCaffrey could give a bit of a boost is getting something going outside the tackles. On runs outside the tackles this season, Wilson has averaged -0.26 EPA per rush with a 22.7% success rate and a 4.5% rate of runs over 10 yards. McCaffrey has averaged 0.20 EPA per rush with a 42.1% success rate and 15.8% of those attempts going for 10 or more yards.
There is certainly an argument that McCaffrey could thrive in a better-designed run game that could be a force multiplier for McCaffrey’s run value and efficiency.
McCaffrey has also been more physical breaking tackles. His 16.5% broken tackle rate is 12th among 39 running backs with at least 50 carries this season. Wilson’s 4.5% rate is 39th. The 49ers could be fielding a nearly untackleable group of skill position players.
The biggest boost comes from what McCaffrey can do for the passing game. This season, McCaffrey is averaging 1.79 yards per route run. The average for running backs with at least 100 routes this season is 1.08. The average for a wide receiver with at least 100 routes run is 1.59. McCaffrey is a legitimate threat with the ball in his hands and this year that has come with 48.8% of his targets at or behind the line of scrimmage.
While it might not take much imagining to picture McCaffrey taking a handoff for an outside zone run, the imagination would potentially run wild with ways Kyle Shanahan could scheme up his new running back in the passing game.
If Shanahan has thrived on picking on weak opposing linebackers, how useful is a running back who can run straight up the seam from the backfield?
This season, Jimmy Garoppolo has been in empty on 19.7% of his dropbacks. That rate was 17.5% last season and just 7.7% in 2020. It’s a growing piece of the San Francisco playbook. The 49ers can now come out in empty from 11 personnel that plays like 10 with McCaffrey and George Kittle as the non-receivers. They could also go 21 with Kyle Juszczyk, which would likely force the opposing defense into base defense before getting spread out.
13.5% of the 49ers’ empty snaps this season have been in 21 personnel. It’s only five attempts for Garoppolo but in that package, they’ve averaged 0.60 EPA per play with gains of 32 and 20 yards. Now McCaffrey can be one of the backs and that personnel could be used more.
McCaffrey took take some of Juszczyk’s usage, a fullback who has been no stranger to a wheel route. Jusczyk has a career 17.3% slot rate and 5.68-yard aDOT. That could be an ideal role for McCaffrey in this offense. This season, McCaffrey has only been in the slot on 8% of his snaps, but he has 3.61 yards per route run.
The 49ers could even use a split-back look with McCaffrey and Deebo Samuel both in the backfield. Even if McCaffrey is only used as a traditional pass-catching back, it’s a major upgrade for the 49ers.
What Did It Cost?
The draft compensation is the most for a running back trade since the Cleveland Browns traded for Trent Richardson. Bringing up that trade is going to raise all the alarm bells but even factoring in McCaffrey’s injury history, he and Richardson are very different players.
That still does not change the haul given up by a team that has previously invested heavily in draft picks at the running back position and will be light on 2023 capital overall after the Trey Lance trade. The 49ers will now have two third-round picks, and fifth and a seventh, officially. Nick Korte of Over The Cap projects them to have compensatory picks in the fifth, sixth, and two in the seventh. It’s not a lot, but also not nothing.
We don’t know what the 2023 picks will be but if we take them at the value where San Francisco picked in 2022 (maybe generous given they made the NFC Championship Game), just the 2023 picks alone would be equivalent to around a mid-first/borderline-top-10 pick. So while a first-round pick was not given in the trade, a significantly valuable haul was.
The Rams were also involved in talks, which likely drove up some of the deal.
With so little draft capital, the 49ers a kind of locked into the current roster. They’ll also have an extension for Nick Bosa on the horizon. San Francisco currently is projected for $27.9 million in cap space, per Over The Cap, which would be the 10th-highest in the league. They’ll also be in the mode of taking this win-now roster and building out around the third year of a rookie quarterback deal.
That brings us to the McCaffrey contract. McCaffrey had already restructured his deal that brought his 2022 salary down to the minimum. The 49ers will owe him around $700,000 for the remainder of the season.
McCaffrey has three years and $35.6 million remaining on his contract after 2022 but none of that is guaranteed. For reference, Joe Mixon’s 2020 extension had a three-year cash flow of $37.6 million. Derrick Henry‘s was $36.5 million. It’s a high price, but not wildly outside of the scope of other running back deals.
The 49ers could move on this offseason (unlikely given the investment already to bring him in) or that deal could be done with a trade-off of more guaranteed money up front for a reduced cap hit. As it stands now, McCaffrey would count for $11.8 million against the cap in 2023 and 2024 with a $12 million cap hit in 2025.
For 2023, even if the deal isn’t reworked, McCaffrey would only have the eighth-highest cap hit in the league.
Running Back Cap Hits, 2023
data per Over The Cap
That table will fluctuate greatly with a number of those deals likely to change as well as a group of free agents, including Saquon Barkley, that could jump into that group.
Are The Panthers Starting A Fire Sale?
It’s unlikely. The trades of McCaffrey and Robbie Anderson make a lot of sense for the present and the future of the Panthers. Anderson was a useful piece for the 2020 roster but hasn’t completely fit as the offense has made changes throughout the past two seasons. At 29 years old, it was unlikely Anderson would be on the roster in 2023 anyway.
The same goes for McCaffrey. As talented as he is, a highly-paid running back doesn’t really have a place on a rebuilding roster. Getting a haul of picks can help the Panthers retool the depth on the roster, behind the quarterback they’ll likely take with what is now the first overall pick in their possession. These moves are a great start for a rebuild that, which some of the other talent in place, might not have to take too long to jumpstart.
D.J. Moore just signed his extension and is still just 25 years old. Brian Burns is 24 and continues to develop off the edge. These should be foundational pieces for the next era of Panthers football.