The San Francisco 49ers have mostly watched as the NFC West division rival Los Angeles Rams have repeatedly swung for the fences to try to win the Super Bowl. That approach worked for the Rams last season. The Niners believe it’s their turn, which is why they pulled off a stunning trade for running back Christian McCaffrey late Thursday night.
The Niners sent second-, third- and fourth-round picks in 2023 and a fifth-round pick in 2024 to the Carolina Panthers for McCaffrey in hopes he can help jump-start a sagging offense.
Through the first six weeks, the 49ers have been plagued by injuries all over the roster, and their offense hasn’t played close to the level of their dominant defense.
Coach Kyle Shanahan doesn’t want a repeat of 2019, when the Niners wasted an elite defense as the offense couldn’t close out the Super Bowl against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Put simply: San Francisco believes it is in a championship window, and trading for McCaffrey sends that message loud and clear to the rest of the league.
How will McCaffrey fit into the 49ers’ offense?
This should be relatively seamless for McCaffrey, who has plenty of experience operating in an outside zone-heavy scheme and brings the type of versatility that will allow Shanahan to mix and match him with the team’s skill-position options. And make no mistake, while McCaffrey will be the team’s No. 1 option at running back, Shanahan will use him in the pass game plenty and create more headaches for defenses, who now have to keep track of him and the likes of receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk and tight end George Kittle. — Nick Wagoner
Did the 49ers give up too much?
On paper, it seems like it. But when you make an all-in move like this, there’s no price that’s too high if it pays off. The risk is obvious: McCaffrey has missed 23 games in the past two seasons, and he’s joining a team that is consistently snakebit by injury. And while the Niners have a couple of third-round compensatory picks, they’re essentially punting on the 2023 NFL draft. Adding young, cost-effective players is important for a team that has so much high-priced talent and is planning to pay defensive end Nick Bosa an enormous amount of money this offseason. But if McCaffrey, who is under contract through 2025, is healthy and on the field, he gives the 49ers one of the best groups of skill-position players in the league, and the loss of multiple Day 2 picks won’t sting much at all. — Wagoner
Does adding McCaffrey put the 49ers over the top in a tight NFC West?
It should, but that comes with the significant caveat of whether the Niners and McCaffrey can get (and stay) relatively healthy. No team has been more banged up than the Niners in the first six weeks, and while many of those players are expected to return, there are no guarantees when it comes to health. If their injury luck turns for the better, the Niners, who are already 2-0 in the division, have the best roster in the NFC West and should be able to not only win the division but make another deep postseason run. — Wagoner
After firing their coach and getting rid of McCaffrey and Anderson, is this a complete rebuild for the Panthers?
The Panthers might not call it a complete rebuild because the defense is in good shape for next season. Defensive tackle Matt Ioannidis is the only starter not under contract. But this is a complete rebuild when you consider the Panthers will have a new coaching staff, since Matt Rhule already has been fired; a new quarterback, since Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold aren’t the answer; and a new face of the franchise, since McCaffrey is gone.
On top of that, the receiver room is a mess. DJ Moore is the only legitimate threat now that Robbie Anderson has been traded to the Arizona Cardinals. And none of Carolina’s tight ends are legitimate weapons. Not to mention the offensive line ranks near the bottom of the league in pass win and run win rate. One could argue 2022 first-round pick Ikem Ekwonu has had growing pains thus far at left tackle. He might be better suited for the right side or at guard. So call this what you want, but it’s a rebuild. — David Newton
How does this set up interim coach Steve Wilks?
Wilks never got a fair shake in his one season (2018) as the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals because he didn’t have the talent to compete and coached with mostly an inherited staff. He has the same situation now with Carolina. And now he loses his most valuable offensive asset. McCaffrey was his offense, accounting for 75% of the team’s yardage in Sunday’s 24-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. Wilks has to replace him with second-year back Chuba Hubbard and journeyman D’Onta Foreman.
The offense is already rated last in the NFL in total yards and in third-down percentage, and former XFL quarterback PJ Walker is starting his second straight game Sunday against Tampa Bay while Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold recover from ankle injuries. Owner David Tepper said Wilks would be considered for the full-time job if he does an exceptional job the remainder of this year. Instead, it appears he has been set up for failure once again. This feels like a total tank to build for the future. — Newton
What are the contract and cap implications of the deal?
McCaffrey is a one-year rental on a cheap contract for San Francisco, with a $1.035 million salary thanks to Carolina’s offseason contract restructure. Next year it gets more complicated, as McCaffrey is owed $11.8 million. But the 49ers don’t inherit McCaffrey’s signing bonus proration, which lessens his $19.5 million cap hit in 2023 by several million. This is all manageable but still steep for a running back. — Jeremy Fowler
What other teams were involved in talks?
Several contenders at least made the call, but as of midweek talks were slow to develop. Despite hype about their interest, I never got the sense the Buffalo Bills were all-in. Teams I’ve talked to believe the Rams and Denver Broncos were involved to some extent but were unwilling to reach the price point the 49ers ended up paying.
The Panthers also have received multiple trade calls on their other top playmaker, wide receiver DJ Moore, per sources, but the team considers Moore a foundational piece for the roster in the long term. — Fowler