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One year after trade, 49ers continue to strike gold with Christian McCaffrey

Oct 1, 2023 at 7:03 PM--

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It's safe to say the San Francisco 49ers' decision to trade for running back Christian McCaffrey in 2022 has worked out about as well as it possibly could have to this point.

Not every trade has turned out that way for the 49ers in recent years, to say the least, but the move to acquire McCaffrey currently ranks as one of the best moves the team has made since general manager John Lynch and head coach Kyle Shanahan came on board in 2017. McCaffrey has become the focal point on a star-studded offense and is proving on a weekly basis that he is more than worthy of the price the 49ers paid to acquire him (a second, a third, a fourth, and a fifth-round pick) from the Carolina Panthers on October 20, 2022.

"Life has been much better," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said after a 35-16 win over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, during which McCaffrey ran for 106 yards and three touchdowns on 20 carries to go with seven receptions for 71 yards and one receiving touchdown.

McCaffrey now has 239 carries for 1,205 yards and 12 touchdowns in 15 regular season games with the 49ers, along with 70 receptions for 605 yards and five touchdowns. He's become the clear focal point of a star-studded offense that ranks among the best in the NFL and has scored 30 or more points in each of its four games this season. There was plenty of risk for the 49ers in giving up four draft picks for a running back, especially one who was limited to just ten games over the 2020 and 2021 seasons due to injury. But McCaffrey is making that risk pay off in decisive fashion.

"In order to make trades, you usually have to give a little bit more to get people, and then there's always a risk that they won't work out," Shanahan said. "There's injuries in this league. There's tons of stuff, but what you like to do is know the guy you're betting on, and he's a dude that I think everyone would bet on."

The production McCaffrey has delivered on the field since the trade doesn't come as a huge surprise considering the numbers he put up in Carolina before his injuries (most notably his 2019 season, during which he ran for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns while catching 116 passes for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns). But the impact he's made on and off the field has caused the 49ers to realize McCaffrey is an even better player than they thought he was.

"You know he's that good of a player, just watching him and stuff," Shanahan said. "I think the whole league does. But then when you get someone, when you're around him personally, then you realize how much better he is just because of the intangibles that he has and really his whole makeup and how he works each week and how he prepares for a season from what he's been doing us with us and OTAs (Organized Team Activities) all the way until now. He's as much of a professional as I've been around."

McCaffrey's work ethic has made an impression since Day 1 on 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, who was among those to help McCaffrey learn Shanahan's playbook during his early days with the team. Purdy, who was still a backup quarterback when McCaffrey joined the team, found out quickly that McCaffrey had an advanced approach when it came to game preparation.

"Just his detail and the focus that he had would go out to the field, just him and I, and walk through plays and stuff, and he was all focused in," Purdy said Sunday. "And I'm like, okay, is this like an act or is he like being for real? And then he would do it every day, and then we'd sit down at the table the night before the game and do it, and then he's all focused. And he's the same guy today. He is the way he is because of obviously his preparation, his focus and his mindset. He's on another level."

McCaffrey has made an impression on his teammates on the defensive side of the ball as well. Defensive end Nick Bosa told reporters Sunday that McCaffrey has caused him to look at running backs with a bit more respect than he previously had.

"I actually was talking about this with the D-Line," Bosa said. "As a D-Line, I don't give too much respect to running backs, usually just because of how well we've played the run since we've been here. But I think my mind has changed on that a little bit. There's definitely some guys in the league that you have to really prepare for and he's most definitely one of them."

Linebacker Fred Warner says McCaffrey's mental approach is lifting him to heights he hasn't reached before.

"I could talk about that guy all day long. Incredible player, great mindset and the things that he's able to do," Warner said Sunday. "I think his ability to run the football to start this season has been I think his biggest just jump. Ge obviously has always been a great player, but running through contact, he obviously does all those things out of the backfield, catching the football. But his mindset and mentality when he's running the football right now is the best I've seen."

The trade has worked out for McCaffrey as well. He's clearly happy to be on a playoff team that gives him a chance to win every week, and he's thankful for how the organization has embraced him since year one.

"I think the cool part from my perspective is how these guys took me in a year ago, and none of that's changed," McCaffrey said Sunday. "Like I said, I got the call, I was traded. John Lynch called me right after that, and then I got a call from (tight end) George Kittle. He was the third person that called me, and that's just kind of a testament. And he represents the whole team and kind of how they took me in. So I'm just really honored and blessed to be a part of this team."

McCaffrey is also more than pleased to be a part of a team where everyone gets the job done from a blocking perspective, which obviously makes his job much easier.

"It's so fun to play for a team that takes pride in blocking," McCaffrey said. "You got a guy like Deebo (wide receiver Deebo Samuel) and (wide receiver Brandon) Aiyuk and Jauan (wide receiver Jauan Jennings). And today out there, Ronnie (wide receiver Ronnie Bell) and Ray-Ray (wide receiver Ray-Ray McCloud) and Juice (fullback Kyle Juszczyk). I mean, the list goes on. Kittle, who just every game, that's kind of the standard. And then an O-Line who just is unbelievable. It's fun because you don't know which play is going to pop."

In addition to singing the praises of his teammates, McCaffrey credits the team's culture for helping him raise the level of his game.

"On this team, it's about showing up every day," McCaffrey said. "The standard is so high. Trent's (left tackle Trent Williams) a Hall of Famer, arguably the best left tackle to ever play, and you got guys on this team who the standard was set. They built this culture for six years.

"They went through a lot of tough days. Obviously, I had my good times and bad times in Carolina. And to come into a team where the culture is set and to watch the way that these guys play, it forces you to want to elevate your game and do everything you can for them because you know they're doing the same for you."

McCaffrey has been one of the NFL's most valuable players over the first four games of the 2023 season (80 carries, 459 yards, six touchdowns; 18 catches, 141 yards, one touchdown), and if he maintains this level of performance the rest of the way he might wind up being a rare example of a running back who finds himself in the midst of the MVP discussion at the end of the season. Bosa, who won the league's Defensive Player of the Year in 2022, thinks McCaffrey is worthy of consideration.

"Of course, yeah," Bosa said. "Whenever he's out there, it changes everything with his ability to catch the ball and obviously run. I told him after today, he was sitting in front of me at the NFL Honors and hopefully I'm sitting in front of him and congratulating him."

There's also no doubt he makes everyone around him better and has taken the 49ers' offense to a new level.

"He's a freak. He does everything for us, obviously," Purdy said. "Can run the ball, can run routes out of the backfield, can line up as a receiver and run routes. He does everything, man. So we're thankful for him. He's a dog. He takes some hits, but, man, he just keeps going. And all you got to do is get the ball to that guy in space and he does the rest. So I'm very thankful to be playing with him."

Perhaps McCaffrey can maintain the numbers he's put up so far the rest of the way, or perhaps there will be games where he takes a back seat to one of the other playmakers on the 49ers' offense. Whatever happens, the 49ers are clearly happy they decided to roll the dice on October 20, 2022 -- so much so that they don't want to imagine what life would be like if they hadn't made the deal.

"No," Shanahan said Sunday. "Don't ever say that."

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