NFL News & Analysis

Christian McCaffrey adds a whole new dynamic to the San Francisco 49ers offense

Inglewood, California, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) carries the ball against the Los Angeles Rams in the first half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers traded for star running back Christian McCaffrey on Thursday night, setting the stage for one of the most interesting stories of the 2022 NFL season.

The 49ers backfield under head coach Kyle Shanahan has long been the bane of fantasy managers. Trying to predict which player will generate the production each season has been almost impossible, but it has also been a gamble people take because Shanahan’s system is almost guaranteed to produce rushing success.

Since he arrived in San Francisco, 49ers backs have averaged 4.5 yards per carry as a group, and they have averaged a massive 1.7 yards before contact per attempt. Shanahan’s system, like that of his father, can seemingly create production from any back, but trying to identify “this year’s” Elijah Mitchell, Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert or Jeff Wilson Jr. can be a trial.

Trading for Christian McCaffrey should simplify that decision-making, but it also represents something far more interesting. Why would Kyle Shanahan — the man whose system repeatedly proves investment in running backs can be a waste — keep investing significant capital in the position?

It’s unlikely to have escaped his notice that he can create production out of an endless stream of low-round draft picks or undrafted free agents. Clearly, Shanahan believes that an elite talent can act as a force multiplier on the offense and dramatically exceed the benefit of simply “good” rushing production.

Name Season Rushing grade Attempts Yards per carry
Deebo Samuel 2021 82.0 60 6.20
Raheem Mostert 2019 77.9 139 5.60
Raheem Mostert 2020 77.0 109 5.00
Elijah Mitchell 2021 76.0 213 4.70
Jerick McKinnon 2020 74.7 88 3.90
Jeff Wilson Jr. 2020 73.9 128 4.80
Matt Breida 2019 72.7 126 5.10
Matt Breida 2017 71.5 109 4.40
Jeff Wilson Jr. 2022 69.8 84 4.90
Tevin Coleman 2019 69.1 139 4.00
NFL Average 4.31

McCaffrey also brings a very rare skill set in the passing game and can further add to Shanahan’s bag of schematic tricks. To go with his 628 carries, the sixth-year back saw 369 targets in his first three seasons before injuries started to disrupt his career. He has spent over 500 career snaps lined up in the slot or out at wide receiver and has a true slot receiver skill set.

The 49ers now have a running back who can line up at wideout and a wideout who can line up at running back (Deebo Samuel), making them a singular nightmare for opposing defenses to match up against.

With those two in the huddle, defenses could be looking at 21 personnel, 11 personnel or a zero-back look and have no way of telling which before they line up.

The cost is significant and difficult to ignore, but let’s not lose sight of what this allows Shanahan to potentially create if McCaffrey can stay healthy — because it’s potentially special.

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