Christian McCaffrey could be the RB – and the final piece of the Super Bowl puzzle – the 49ers have been looking for

The San Francisco 49ers have boasted one of the best running units in the NFL nearly every year since Kyle Shanahan took over as head coach in 2017. Over the past four seasons, the 49ers have ranked among the top 15 in rushing attempts and rushing yards, and they’ve placed in the top seven in both categories in both seasons, San Francisco has made long playoffs (2019 and 2021).

And until they trade for Christian McCaffrey, the 49ers had accomplished all of their rushing successes with a relatively unknown talent. The team’s top three running backs over the past five seasons were: Carlos Hyde (a Jim Harbaugh-era veteran), 2021 sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell and three undrafted free agents in Rahim Mostert, matt breida and Jeff Wilson Jr.

While all are solid players, this group isn’t exactly a dynamic game-changer.

The 49ers have tried — and failed — to find their running backs of the future in the draft and in free agency. They’ve passed four picks for the job since 2017 to Mitchell, Tyrion Davis-Price, Sermon Trey and Joe Williams. Only Mitchell has seen many shots. San Francisco also signed Jerick McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million deal in 2018 and Tevin Coleman in 2019 on a two-year, $10 million deal. Neither was successful, although that was mostly due to injuries.

Now, finally, Shanahan has his guy in McCaffrey. It came at a price — second-, third-, and fourth-round draft picks in 2023 and a fifth-round pick in 2024 — but the deal gives the 49ers perhaps their most dynamic running back ever.

Before we even dive into the schematics, McCaffrey will join arguably the NFL’s most versatile skill set. wide receiver Deebo Samuel is one of the best runners with the ball. tight end George Kittle is a blocking phenomenon that can beat linebackers on passing routes. Recipient Brandon Aïyuk proved his worth as a playmaker. Fullback Kyle Juszczyk can run, block and catch out of the backfield.

Add McCaffrey to the mix and it’s hard to find a hole in the 49ers offense outside of Jimmy Garoppolowhich is a different argument for another day.

McCaffrey will be excellent in attacking Shanahan

When it comes to style, this is where things get fun. Shanahan’s much-vaunted offense uses a wide-area blocking system that effectively forces defenders to play laterally while the offensive line opens up traffic lanes where the offense wants. McCaffrey is perfect for this as he can make plays in and out of tackles and adjust on the fly. Just look at his rushed charts over the years.

Its speed is sudden. McCaffrey is a home hitter almost every time he touches the ball. He has the second most games with a run or catch of at least 50 yards since 2017, according to Panthers.comand the third most yards per touch since 2017 at 5.78 yards. McCaffrey has also led the NFL with 113.6 scrimmage yards per game since 2017.

McCaffrey’s propensity for catching passes gives him something Shanahan’s offense has also sorely lacked. The only running back for the 49ers with 50+ receptions in a season during Shanahan’s tenure was Hyde in 2017. Juszczyk, the fullback, also managed running backs for the 49ers three times during that span, but he never finished with more than 33 in a season. McCaffrey, meanwhile, is averaging six receptions for 51.4 yards per game – who have both led the NFL since 2017 – and caught at least 80 balls in seasons he played a full slate of games.

These skills should create game nightmares for the 49ers, as they can also use McCaffrey in their two-man sets (21). San Francisco has led the league in this group in three of the past four seasons, according to Sharp Football Analysis, and was second to the New England Patriots in 2020. In this roster, McCaffrey could be a runner, receiver, blocker, or a combination of all of them in any given game. It’s incredibly difficult for a defense to plan against.

McCaffrey should eat into this offense and give the 49ers a weapon they never had during the Shanahan era. Samuel’s role as a pseudo-runner in 2021 was probably the closest San Francisco had to McCaffrey, and it helped the team qualify for an NFC Championship Game and on the cusp of another. Super Bowl appearance. Now they have someone playing that role full time.

The knocks against this move are three-fold: McCaffrey’s injury history, the contract that came with it, and what San Francisco gave away to Carolina.

McCaffrey has only played 10 games from 2020 to 2021 having never missed a game in his career. It will cost at least $11.8 million from the 2023 to 2025 cap, per above the ceiling. The 49ers also gave up the equivalent of the fourth overall pick, according to PFFfor a 26-year-old running back with more than 1,200 career contacts.

It could explode in the faces of Shanahan and general manager John Lynch, especially given the huge questions surrounding their decision to trade for the quarterback. Trey Lance last year and his current injury situation. McCaffrey is not a lock to play a full season and the team may not be able to afford to keep some of their best plays in the coming years or find talent in the draft after spending so much on him.

But after failing to return to the Super Bowl two years after their magic run in 2019, it was the decision the 49ers had to make to give them the edge over the rest of their division, their conference and the NFL. McCaffrey is one of the truly special talents in the league, and Shanahan will surely know how to use it properly to create a dominant offense given McCaffrey’s skill set.

Christian McCaffrey could be the missing piece for the 49ers. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

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