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Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Brock Purdy vs. Christian McCaffrey: Who is more valuable to the 49ers in 2023?

Jun 7, 2023 at 10:30 AM--

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It's that time of the offseason.

The draft has come and gone, OTAs have just started up, but several months still remain between now and the first snap of the 2023 season. Given the lull in breaking news and big games, it's a good time to get a bit more... philosophical.

Today, I wanted to compare two of the 49ers' biggest playmakers in the 2022 season - rookie QB sensation Brock Purdy and do-it-all RB Christian McCaffrey. The question is simple; given a full, healthy season, who does more to help the 49ers win a Super Bowl this year? Whose talents are the most vital to the annual quest for a Lombardi Trophy, and which one can San Francisco least afford to lose?

These players, of course, play entirely different positions and occupy different roles on the team. That's part of the thought exercise. Ranking wide receivers or cornerbacks against each other is one thing, but appreciating the individual excellence of these players and evaluating how they improve the team as a whole is another entirely. That's the beauty of the 49ers, though. With as much talent as they have on their roster, there's no shortage of players to dream on and celebrate.

With that said, let's make an argument for each player, starting with Brock Purdy, and see what conclusions we can draw from this exercise.

QB Brock Purdy

2022 stats: 1,347 yards, 67.1 CMP%, 13 TD, 4 INT, 107.3 RTG

From the moment he stepped onto the football field, all Purdy did last year was ball. When Jimmy Garoppolo went down with a foot injury in Week 13 against the Dolphins, many assumed the season had been lost right then and there. But "Big Clock Brock" (so named for his timely arrival, of course) stepped up and did more than just fill Jimmy G's shoes. He surpassed him. In just six games, he managed to become everything that Garoppolo couldn't be: he was mobile, he threw deep, he avoided interceptions, and he was doing it all as Mr. Irrelevant, the last pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. He conquered every challenge in front of him: winning in a shootout against Miami, taking down Tom Brady, staying perfect against Seattle's Twelves, and playing through injury. His playoff performances impressed as well, with Purdy out-dueling Geno Smith and Dak Prescott before an untimely injury sent him and the 49ers home.

Fig 1: QB efficiency chart from Brock Purdy's Week 13 debut onwards. Up and to the right indicates better performance. Note Purdy's presence alongside NFL stars Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts, and Aaron Rodgers (top right). Graphic courtesy of

The advanced stats back up Purdy's miraculous 2022 run. He ranked third in Estimated Points Added per play, just behind Patrick Mahomes and Jared Goff. His completion percentage ranked sixth, just behind Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert. The Niners scored at least 30 points in five of the six regular games since Purdy became the starter, the only exception being a 21-13 road win with Purdy battling an oblique injury. For every worrying sign about Purdy dropping his eyes and fleeing the pocket a few moments too soon, there were three more positive ones when he executed the routine plays, converted the difficult ones, and made something out of nothing after bailing out of a broken play.

With Purdy seeming ahead of schedule on his offseason rehab, he has a shot to be installed as the Week 1 starter this year. So what can the 49ers expect? I think a fair bar to set here is 4,000 passing yards with a TD:INT ratio of at least 2:1. That's right about what Garoppolo hit during his breakout 2019 season, when he put up 3,978 yards, 27 TDs, and 13 INTs. Is that an easy task? Of course not. There's a reason the 49ers haven't had a 4,000 yard passer since Jeff Garcia. But that's what will be needed for the 49ers to sniff another Super Bowl run. And Purdy, whose skillset meshes well with the "YAC and daggers" Shanahan offense, is as good a candidate as any to hit those milestones. If you think Purdy can make the jump instead of hitting a sophomore slump, he's probably your pick here.

RB Christian McCaffrey

2022 stats: Rushing - 1,139 yards, 4.7 YPC, 8 TD, Receiving - 741 yards, 8.7 YPR, 5 TD

For most teams, this comparison isn't even a question. Their no. 1 QB vs. their no. 1 running back? It's quarterback every day. There's a reason that the 12 highest-paid players in the NFL are all QBs. And that, really, is what makes this exercise so fascinating, because Christian McCaffrey isn't most running backs.

That's because McCaffrey unlocks the offense in a way that very few non-QB skill position players ever do. Sure, he's been a reliable runner, with around 1,100 yards on the season at a brisk 4.7 yards a carry. But it's his threat as a safety valve and short-area receiver who requires full pass support from the defense that makes his impact extend beyond just his position. Before the Niners acquired McCaffrey and integrated him into their offense in week 8, they were middling at best, ranking 13th in passing EPA/play and languishing all the way back at 24th in rushing EPA/play.

Fig 2: Offense efficiency chart from McCaffrey's Week 8 full debut onwards. The 49ers rushing offense jumped from mediocre to above average and their passing offense went from good to truly explosive. Graphic courtesy of

But as soon as "Run CMC" had a full week of practice in Santa Clara, things turned on a dime. From week 8 on, San Francisco boasted the third-best overall offense, surging to third in passing and 11th in rushing. McCaffrey's durability and versatility gave opponents fits, and even when he wasn't the one feasting, the offense was humming with the space that his presence opened up. His ability to elude defenders in open space allowed him to rack up YAC yards like George Kittle in 2018, and he was a huge reason why the 49ers surged in third down conversion efficiency from 41.0% before his acquisition to 47.8% after. The former is right about where they Bears ended the 2022 season. The latter is the Bills.

McCaffrey, more than either Garoppolo or Purdy, lurks behind the production during the 49ers' 10-0 run to end the regular season. And it's not nothing that once Purdy went down in the NFC Championship game, McCaffrey was the only one who did much of anything on offense, topping 100 total yards and scoring San Francisco's only touchdown. It's possible that until the 49ers acquire or develop a truly game-breaking passer in the vein of Mahomes or Burrow, it's McCaffrey who will drive the engine in Kyle Shanahan's offense.

If he's healthy again this season, an offense that unlocks him as much as he unlocks it, he could well have an Offensive Player of the Year type season. 2,000 combined rushing and receiving yards, 20 TDs, 9 YPR. That's Marshall Faulk-type stuff. That would almost certainly make McCaffrey the most irreplaceable player on the roster. At least the 49ers could theoretically bulwark an absence from Nick Bosa with a bevy D-lineman from their ongoing investment in that front. Could they survive losing an OPOY-caliber player in McCaffrey this year? Could any team?

Final Thoughts

It might not be the popular pick, but I'm leaning towards McCaffrey as the more valuable player to the 49ers in 2023. He's had an injury history, but held up phenomenally during an extended postseason run last year. Brock Purdy has a chance to absolutely shatter every expectation set in front of him, and if he does, this answer might look a lot more foolish a year from now. But the Niners do have options at quarterback, and no matter who they roll with, CMC is going to make their lives significantly easier under center. Even if Purdy balls out, we've seen the difference between the solid-but-underwhelming running back group at the beginning of 2022 vs. the one that finished out the year with him. McCaffrey had the same gravity as Kittle did in 2018-2019 and Deebo did in 2021. And if you can get your hands on a truly foundational player like that, you keep him.

Fortunately, the situation for both players seems fairly locked in for now - CMC should remain on an extended contract for the foreseeable future, and Purdy's entering just the second year of his rookie deal. Hopefully, both men remain franchise cornerstones for years to come.

Who do you think will be the more valuable player next year? Let us know in the comments below! Be sure to share the most memorable moments from your pick, and keep an eye out for more discussion articles about your favorite players. Go Niners!
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.


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