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Will the 49ers lighten Christian McCaffrey’s load in 2024?

Marc Adams
Jul 1, 2024 at 10:43 AM

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Will the San Francisco 49ers lighten the load of star running back Christian McCaffrey in 2024? Since joining the team in 2022, the reigning Offensive Player of the Year has given the 49ers their money's worth. Last season, McCaffrey racked up 2,023 yards from scrimmage and scored 21 touchdowns. Since joining the 49ers, McCaffrey has rushed for 2,205 yards (in only 27 games), caught 119 passes for 1,028 yards, and has scored a combined 31 touchdowns. In his 27 games with the 49ers (not counting the postseason, McCaffrey has gained an impressive 3,233 yards from scrimmage. The 49ers are 22-5 in the regular season with McCaffrey.

But is Kyle Shanahan using the NFL's rushing leader too much? In 2023, McCaffrey touched the ball 339 times. And that's not counting the many other times he was hit.

Last month, Shanahan spoke about protecting McCaffrey from himself. Great players hate coming off the field, and McCaffrey is no different. Having a healthy Elijah Mitchell behind him should make it easier to do, though.

"We have guys that can run the ball," Shanahan said. "We have to protect Christian from himself. He doesn't like to ever come out no matter what the situation is and I do think that's something we could protect him with more. When you are such a threat in the pass game, it's a little bit different.

"But if he's just taking the wear and tear with 20 carries and stuff every game — and he's definitely good enough to do that and he has proved he can stay healthy — but you'd like to take some of that off of him and give it to other guys also."

Back in April, during an episode of "The Red and Bold Show," I asked my co-host, Anthony Robertson, if the 49ers might use McCaffrey less in 2024, just to protect him from potential injury.

"Yeah. I think here's a case where you have Kyle Shanahan who wants to get the ball in Christian McCaffrey's hands as much as he can because he's his number-one playmaker and a playmaker who wants the ball in his hands as much as he can," Robertson said. "The truth is that fans think about longevity and reps and things a lot more than coaches and players do. Coaches and players know that if you get the ball in the hands of your best players, you have a better chance to make plays and win football games. So, yeah, I mean, is there probably a pitch count? Yes, but Bobby Turner is making sure McCaffrey's in whenever they need him."

Of course, McCaffrey is the biggest difference-maker on the team. But Mitchell is no slouch, when healthy. And the fanbase loves Jordan Mason. Could either (or both) of those guys get more touches in 2024?

"I think there's always a case that you would like to get the ball into some other guy's hands, maybe give McCaffrey some more breaks," Robertson continued. "But last year they did have times where Elijah Mitchell was out. I think Kyle Shanahan has a lot of confidence in Elijah Mitchell because he can do the things that you need from that particular position that you get from McCaffrey. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He has very good vision. He can find holes where you get a little bit of a difference between him and Jordan Mason, where Jordan Mason is more of a physical runner who can get extra yards after contact.

"But I think Kyle's wanting somebody that's more close to what McCaffrey does because of the type of strain it puts on a defense, as far as covering McCaffrey out of the backfield and you want a running back with a like set of skills so you don't have to change everything up. I do think they like Jordan Mason. I think he's progressing. He's getting a little bit better at pass blocking, getting a little bit better catching the football. It's still going to be a key to get McCaffrey the ball as much as possible. But finding little breaks and little areas to get somebody else you feel confident in is probably something they're going to do. And I think with Elijah Mitchell going into the last year of his contract, they're probably going to try to give him some extra touches this season."

Shanahan has a lot of confidence in Mitchell. He does all the right things, and he doesn't fumble the ball. If he can stay healthy, he will get a lot of touches behind McCaffrey in 2024. But McCaffrey is still the biggest star on offense. So while he may receive fewer touches this coming season, I wouldn't expect it to be that much less.

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