Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers is interesting, but it remains to be seen if it changes the overall dynamic of the NFC playoff picture.
With the Carolina Panthers completely tearing it down to the studs in their rebuild, the San Francisco 49ers were able to acquire their most talented player in often-injured running back Christian McCaffrey.
All it took to acquire the Panthers’ star running back was San Francisco’s second, third and fourth-round picks in the 2023 NFL Draft, as well as the 49ers’ fifth-round pick in 2024. That is A LOT for a 26-year-old running back who has not played in 10 regular-season games since his 2019 All-Pro campaign. The good news for McCaffrey is he is back in the Bay Area near Stanford.
While McCaffrey’s father Ed played for Kyle Shanahan’s father Mike in Denver, how sure are we this trade amplifies the 49ers into a serious threat to come out of the NFC? They could, but let’s see how this trade impacts the overall hierarchy of the NFC going forward this season.
Christian McCaffrey trade: How the move can shape the NFC playoff picture?
Through the first six weeks of the season, the 49ers are leading the NFC West, albeit with a 3-3 record. The NFC West rival Los Angeles Rams and Seattle Seahawks are also 3-3, but two of San Francisco’s three wins on the season have come against their biannual divisional opponents. Interestingly enough, their only other win has come against McCaffrey’s former NFL employer…
In short, nobody really knows if the NFC West is any good this year. The Arizona Cardinals got a win on Thursday Night Football to start Week 7 out on the right foot, but that came against a bad New Orleans Saints team to improve to a dismal 3-4 on the season. Kliff Kingsbury has lived to fight another day. Truth be told, you just have to win your division to be in good shape in the NFL.
While being up 2-0 in NFC West play is huge for the 49ers, those two games did come at home. Historically, Shanahan has owned Sean McVay head-to-head, so maybe the 49ers complete the regular-season sweep of the Rams? Seattle might be the least talented team in the division, but needing to beat Pete Carroll’s team on the road to complete the season sweep is insanely difficult.
Even if the Cardinals are poorly coached, that is a talented roster and one certainly capable of beating, or even sweeping, the 49ers. So let’s just say 6-0 in division is not happening, 5-1 would be ideal, 4-2 is probable, 3-3 could happen and 2-4 is a complete unmitigated disaster. Either way, the 49ers getting two early wins over the Rams and Seahawks bodes well for them going forward.
The problem here is, again, the NFC West may not be any good. The 49ers’ three losses were all on the road vs. teams they should be better than in Chicago, Denver and Atlanta. Losing to the Falcons was especially troubling because the 49ers got pushed around all game by Shanahan’s former team. Perhaps the lack of dynamism offensively vs. the Dirty Birds necessitated this trade?
Either way, what this trade does is three-fold in the NFC. First, it makes the 49ers arguably the team to beat in the NFC West, assuming the Seahawks fall back to earth, the Rams don’t find their footing and this is truly a year from hell for the Cardinals. You trade for a player like McCaffrey to add to an offense that already has Brandon Aiyuk, George Kittle and Deebo Samuel, and look out!
Secondly, this trade makes the Panthers the favorites to end up with the worst record in the NFL. Are they destined to go 1-16 now? I mean, they could, as all eyes are on Carolina taking Ohio State quarterback C.J. Stroud No. 1 overall in 2023. The problem with that is the Panthers have two more games in division with Atlanta and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers apiece, who are both 3-3…
This is significant because the NFC South and NFC West play each other in their entireties this season. Atlanta has the head-to-head tiebreaker of San Francisco already. Tampa Bay could get that if they beat the 49ers later this season. The only team in the NFC West that has not played and beaten the pitiful Panthers up to this point is the Seahawks, a team that still has some fight.
And finally, trading for McCaffrey gives Shanahan another weapon to use offensively. At his core, he is his father’s son, meaning he will use the zone blocking scheme to his advantage. McCaffrey is an ideal player in this system, both as a runner and as a receiver. With him under contract through his age-29 season, McCaffrey should be able to close out his prime in a 49ers uniform.
What this trade does is it makes the 49ers a sneaky-good No. 3 or 4 seed should they win one of the weaker divisions in the NFC. It may not be good enough to usurp teams like the Minnesota Vikings or whoever comes out of the NFC East, but they could be a tough postseason matchup if they are indeed underseeded like they were a year ago. A lot can change, but title bout is possible.
If McCaffrey stays healthy, it would not be shocking if the 49ers return to the NFC Championship.