Columnists, Sports

4th and Inches: Christian McCaffrey makes the 49ers Super Bowl contenders

Haley Alvarez-Lauto | DFP Staff

Versatile players are a luxury in the National Football League. There might not be a more versatile player in the league than former Carolina Panthers star running back Christian McCaffrey. 

McCaffrey’s phenomenal 2019-20 campaign showed just how versatile he is. He scored 19 total touchdowns and racked up 2392 yards –– the third most yards from scrimmage in a season in NFL history. 

Following that season, McCaffrey suffered major injuries that limited him to just 10 games in two years. The 26-year-old made a full recovery before the 2022-23 season, but many NFL fans and analysts hesitated to embrace McCaffrey as the player he was before the injuries. 

With the large workload and high volume of contact they endure, running backs tend to have short NFL careers, and injuries only hasten retirement. 

Despite the odds, McCaffrey hasn’t shown signs of regression. In his first six games, he recorded 100 yards from scrimmage in all but one game. The Panthers, however, failed to capitalize on McCaffrey’s renaissance and only managed to win one of those six games. 

Carolina decided to commence the rebuilding process, sending McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers. In exchange, Carolina received four quality draft picks, including a second-round pick in next year’s draft.  

Since Kyle Shanahan took over the head coaching job in San Francisco in 2020, the 49ers have prioritized adding athletic offensive weapons with a diverse skill set. McCaffrey is the epitome of just that. 

Keeping McCaffrey in Carolina would be like Albert Einstein teaching high school physics – so much talent gone to waste. Although McCaffrey is just one player, his presence impacts how defenses scheme against San Francisco’s offense. 

The versatility and athleticism of San Francisco’s playmakers is the most dangerous feature of its new offense. It’s a perfect roster for Shanahan, a creative play caller who uses players in various personnel packages. 

For example, receiver Deebo Samuel carried the ball 59 times last season and scored more touchdowns on the ground than through the air. At the same time, Samuel finished the season top five in receiving yards. He’s a player that doesn’t need to be thrown the ball to make plays. 

Similarly, McCaffrey is a skilled receiver even though his primary position is in the backfield. In his dominant 2019-20 season, McCaffrey caught 116 passes for over 1,000 yards. 

Alongside McCaffrey and Samuel, the 49ers’ offense is littered with versatile weapons. Receivers Brandon Aiyuk and Ray-Ray McCloud III are both quality playmakers in open space. 

Tight end George Kittle and fullback Kyle Juszczyk bring more versatility to the offense. Kittle is an elite tight end in every aspect of the position. He catches as well as any receiver and blocks like an offensive lineman. Kittle is also great at using his rare combination of strength and speed to extend plays. 

While not as talented as Kittle, Juszczyk shares the same skill set. He’s one of the few remaining fullbacks in the league and a big reason why the position still exists in the modern NFL. 

The versatility allows the 49ers to disguise their offensive scheme. A personnel package with more tight ends and running backs typically suggests a run play. But with McCaffrey in the backfield and Kittle at tight end, defenses have to respect the pass.

This also allows Shanahan to take full advantage of pre-snap motion. There are two predominant reasons for sending a player in motion. The offense can tell whether the defense is in a man or zone coverage depending on whether a defender follows a player in motion. Motion also forces defenses to react to movement late in the snap count which can alter or confuse coverages. 

With the multiposition players San Francisco has, they can change how they lineup and who they send in motion. For example, McCaffrey can line up out wide with Samuel in the backfield. If McCaffrey goes in motion, he can get the ball on a jet sweep or run a route. At the same time, the 49ers can hand the ball to Samuel or send him on a route. 

Also, if McCaffrey has success running the ball from the backfield, the 49ers can run the same play with Samuel without tipping off the defense. 

These are just a few examples of how the 49ers can take advantage of their star playmakers. Opposing defenses also have to account for Kittle, Aiyuk and the rest of their skill position players. This makes San Francisco very tough to gameplan for. 

The 49ers showed a glimpse of how dynamic their offense is in a 31-14 victory over the Los Angeles Rams in Week 8.

In just his second game with San Francisco, McCaffrey recorded 183 total yards on 18 rushes, eight catches and one completion. McCaffrey also became the first player in 17 years to score a rushing, receiving and passing touchdown in the same game. 

The 49ers accomplished all that with Samuel inactive due to injury. Additionally, the Rams have a top-five defense led by Aaron Donald and Jalen Ramsey –– two of the league’s best defensive players. 

San Francisco has the No. 1 ranked defense in the league. Their perfectly timed Week 9 bye week gave Samuel time to heal and McCaffrey time to get familiar with the offense. 

The 49ers have the pieces to accomplish something special. It’s just a matter of whether they put those pieces together.

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