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Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Is Christian McCaffrey the 49ers’ Biggest In-season Trade Ever?

Oct 21, 2022 at 10:05 AM--

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You've all heard the news by now: running back Christian McCaffrey is officially a San Francisco 49er.

After Week 5's drubbing at the Niners' hands, Panthers owner David Tepper fired head coach Matt Rhule, setting the stage for a massive fire sale that started with the Panthers offloading wide receiver Robbie Anderson to the Cardinals for Day 3 draft selections in 2023 and 2024. But with little in the way of long-term quarterback stability, the conversation around the Panthers became what they would ask in return for McCaffrey. Despite an exorbitant asking price of two first-round draft picks, rumors circulated about the 49ers, Bills, and Rams being interested in the two-time All-Pro running back. The 49ers beat everyone else to the punch, sacrificing 2023 second, third, and fourth-round picks, as well as a 2024 fifth-round selection, to Carolina pending McCaffrey can pass a physical exam.

With this trade, Niners fans can rejoice in receiving the star power they've been clamoring for from a trade ever since Shanahan took over. Gone are the days of being sort of in, sort of out on the likes of DeAndre Hopkins, Odell Beckham Jr., Amari Cooper, and even Antonio Brown. But just how big is this trade, compared to others the 49ers have made? Let's take a look at some of the biggest in-season pickups the 49ers have made in the salary cap era (1994-2022) and examine how they've gone for the team.

2019: WR Emmanuel Sanders - acquired from Broncos for a 2020 third and 2020 fourth-round pick. Also received DEN 2020 fifth-round pick.

For a team with a stacked, young roster but unproven talent in the wide receiver room, Emmanuel Sanders was a godsend for the 2019 49ers. Despite not receiving a bye week that year due to the unusual trade timing, Sanders started every game for the rest of the year and anchored a WR corps consisting of a rookie Deebo Samuel, Dante Pettis, Kendrick Bourne, Richie James, and Marquise Goodwin. He put up 502 yards (13.4 yards/catch) and 3 touchdowns for the 49ers (plus a 35-yard touchdown pass!), but most importantly, gave Jimmy Garoppolo a proven threat to all levels of the field and prevented defenses from clamping down on TE George Kittle.

While the role he played on the 2019 was more than sufficient to make up for the draft picks exchanged, Sanders' time on the 49ers was limited to that year. He moved on to play with the Saints in 2020 and the Bills in 2021 before retiring, and it never seemed apparent that his impact would stretch out very far beyond the 2019 playoff run. The Sanders trade was a good one that benefitted both sides, but was too limited in scope to truly be an all-timer.

2017: QB Jimmy Garoppolo - acquired from Patriots for a 2018 second-round pick.

An exhaustive list of all 49ers starting quarterbacks from 2000-2017: Jeff Garcia, Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, Alex Smith, Cody Pickett, Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill, Chris Weinke, J.T. O'Sullivan, Troy Smith, Colin Kaepernick, Blaine Gabbert, Brian Hoyer, C.J. Beathard, Jimmy Garoppolo.

If you threw a dart at that list and landed on Garoppolo, you'd probably breathe a sigh of relief. Doubly so if you did just after the 2017 season ended, after Garoppolo had taken a miserable 1-10 squad and rattled off five straight wins to end the season, including one in which he went 21 for 30 with 242 yards, 2 TD, and 1 INT against the Jacksonville, who featured the AFC's best defense that year.

The trade, controversial in New England and completely unexpected in San Francisco, has defined Kyle Shanahan's tenure thus far, for better or for worse. But if there's one thing that's clear about Garoppolo, who features a 35-16 career record when he's a starter, is just that - a starting quarterback in the NFL. He's not someone you'd bench for Nick Foles or Sam Darnold if he has an off game, even if there are a few names out there that would be upgrades. A starter he is, and in 2017, John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan pulled the trigger to acquire the most valuable commodity in the NFL for a second-round pick. If nothing else, the value here is off the charts, even considering that he was signed to what was at the time the biggest quarterback contract in NFL history.

Until and unless he leads the 49ers to a Super Bowl title, he'll be one of the most hotly debated players in all of 49ers history. But as a trade commodity, a healthy young quarterback capable of delivering better-than-average seasons available for one second-round pick? That's a tough deal to beat.

Of Note: DL Charles Omenihu (2021), DL Jordan Willis (2020), OT Shon Coleman (2018)

Charles Omenihu and Jordan Willis, each acquired for a sixth-round pick, have been important cogs in the 49ers' defensive line machine for the past few years under defensive line coach Kris Kocurek. Shon Coleman, acquired for a 7th-round pick from the Browns, backed up Mike McGlinchey. If this list is a bit short, that's because our next key player is...

2015: OLB Gerald Hodges - acquired from Vikings for C Nick Easton and a 2016 sixth-round pick.

Gerald Hodges played in 25 games for the 49ers in 2015 and 2016, notching 2 INTs along with 3 passes defensed and 133 combined tackles. While Hodges' career certainly won't stand out on the list of 49ers greats, it's not a terrible return for a practice squad guard and a late-round pick on 49ers squads that desperately needed talent.

That's... that's it.

It's stunning, really. It took over two decades after the salary cap was implemented in 1994 for the 49ers to trade for a big-name player in the middle of the season. I'm sure there's a big-picture explanation for this, but even outside weeks 1-17, the Niners have historically been very quiet on the trade front. Consider this: every player the 49ers traded for, at all, from 2000-2009, played a total of 50 games for the Niners. That's three seasons and change, collectively. It's mind-boggling.

Of course, in recent years, the Niners have made their fair share of off-season splashes in the trade market. In 2020, they acquired OT Trent Williams from Washington in a coup that saw them send over only fifth and third-round picks. They also picked up DL Dee Ford (2019) and OG Laken Tomlinson (2017), who played key roles in their 2019 NFC title run. In the Harbaugh era, the Niners collected offensive talent in WR Anquan Boldin (2013) and KR Ted Ginn Jr. (2010), who racked up a combined 6,600 yards and 19 TD for just two Day 3 draft picks. Most years also have a decent list of moves made around the annual NFL draft and a large number of free agent signings and retentions.

Still, 49ers fans really have been starved for a big in-season acquisition to draw in talent from another troubled team. As of right now, the only players standing between Christian McCaffrey and the #1 spot in my completely made up "Wow! factor" power rankings are Jimmy Garoppolo and three months of Emmanuel Sanders. How impactful the McCaffrey trade ends up being will be largely contingent on his health; if CMC stays with the Niners for 3-4 more years and averages 10+ games per season, he may just end up the biggest in-season trade for the 49ers in my lifetime. He has the talent. And a team with 6 different leading rushers over the past 6 years - none of whom have eclipsed 1,000 yards, as McCaffrey has thrice in that span - might just need him to get over the hump.

It still hasn't quite sunk in that "Run CMC" is now a Niner, and it probably won't until we see him in action for a few weeks. But if McCaffrey's acquisition was shockingly quick, remember that Garoppolo teleported behind us with a smirk. And his impact, as twisting and wild as that rollercoaster has been, can't be discounted. Jimmy's five seasons in the Bay Area, at 51 games and counting, dovetail with McCaffrey's arrival in a strangely poetic way. Garoppolo has been a metronome with a steady hitch, good enough to get a team to the playoffs, not good enough to carry the team once there. He's the benchmark, the figure to beat, a closed book with pages still to be written. But what if the Niners win it all this season, rewarded for going all-in à la last year's Rams? Who will stand taller than the other? Will it depend upon Garoppolo's uncertain future with the Niners, or with McCaffrey's? What will it take to get a real answer?

As it stands, I believe that Garoppolo will be gone next season, and McCaffrey will find enough joy and value with this team to stick around for 3 or 4 years. If the Niners win a Super Bowl with McCaffrey at all, I have a hunch CMC will be regarded as the better trade, and certainly if they win one without Jimmy. But the Niners could win this year, and CMC could sign a long-term extension before becoming another Dee Ford. CMC could sign elsewhere, Jimmy could stay as a backup (as crazy as it is, no one imagined it this year, either), and the answer could be frustratingly simple. If this team's proven nothing else, it's that they can pull absolute bewilderment out of what would be a cut-and-dry situation for 29 other teams. But as unprecedented as this situation is, and however it ends up, keep the old saying clutched tightly to your breast - 'tis better to have loved and lost, than to never have traded for an elite player at all.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


  • JB
    To Darrell who mentioned about trading for Deion... the 94 season Deion was a free agent and signed with the 49ers.
    Oct 22, 2022 at 8:57 AM
  • Darrell
    The trade for Deion Sanders. It put won the 95' Super Bowl team by making the defense unstoppable to go along with the top offense.
    Oct 21, 2022 at 3:23 PM
  • s king
    What about Fred Dean, 1981? . No Dean, NO Super Bowl!
    Oct 21, 2022 at 2:26 PM
  • Paul
    To Scott below. Bowman wasn’t traded for he was drafted by the 49ers. It is too early to determine if C Mac is the biggest trade. I’d say Jimmy G was the biggest deal because the QB play was so awful before the trade. The 49ers already had Montana so the Young trade ended up excellent, but at the time it wasn’t considered amazing.
    Oct 21, 2022 at 1:08 PM
  • Scott
    Tampa trade for Steve Young was, Bowman and Boldin were up there too.
    Oct 21, 2022 at 11:36 AM

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