There's nothing like a late-night blockbuster to start a weekend of NFL action off right.
Late Thursday night, the San Francisco 49ers sent shock waves rippling across the league by dealing a package of picks to the Carolina Panthers for star running back Christian McCaffrey.
For the player, it's a homecoming of sorts—a return to Northern California after playing collegiately at Stanford. For the Panthers, it's a sign that Carolina is blowing the team up and starting from scratch.
For the 49ers, it means San Francisco is going all-in on the 2022 season. That the team is confident enough that McCaffrey makes it a legitimate Super Bowl contender that it's further mortgaging the franchise's future. That adding arguably the most versatile and dangerous back in the NFL is the missing piece that will put the 49ers over the top.
While there's no guarantee McCaffrey's arrival puts the 49ers on a collision course with Glendale, Arizona, and Super Bowl LVII, it's hard to argue it didn't shift the balance of power even further in San Francisco's direction in the NFC West and make the Niners the NFC's second-best team on paper.
"It was more a big smile and then like, 'All right, I've got to go back and redo third downs, redo red zone, redo everything,'" Shanahan said. "And then it was like, 'Wait a second. He's still got to come and pass the physical. He's not going to be at practice.'"
It's not hard to see why Shanahan was excited. Through the first six games of the 2022 season, McCaffrey essentially was the offense for the Panthers. Even as defenses keyed on him on the worst team in the league, he amassed 670 total yards. He averaged 4.6 yards a carry and was on pace for over 90 receptions and almost 1,900 total yards.
McCaffrey's last full season was one of the best by a running back in recent memory. In 2019, he became just the third player in league history to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry that season and scored 19 touchdowns.
Simply put, when healthy and on top of his game, the 26-year-old McCaffrey does everything at an elite level. It's not that opponents didn't try to stop him in Charlotte. They just couldn't.
Of course, adding a player of that caliber didn't come cheaply for San Francisco. Per Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, the 49ers sent Carolina a second-round pick, a third-rounder and a fourth-rounder in 2023 and a 2024 fifth-round pick. His contract carries cap hits of $12 million in 2023 and 2024, although this year's cap hit is negligible after the Panthers reworked McCaffrey's contract in the offseason.
Combined with what the 49ers spent to trade up for quarterback Trey Lance in 2021, Shanahan and general manager John Lynch can just sleep in when the 2023 draft rolls around.
The deal admittedly carries risks beyond the costs in draft capital and cap space. McCaffrey missed 23 of 33 games in 2020 and 2021 with shoulder, ankle and hamstring injuries. But the injuries weren't repetitive, and he has shown no ill effects from them in 2022.
The future is now in San Francisco. The team shoved all its chips into the middle of the table. When you consider what McCaffrey could add to the 49ers offense, it's not hard to see why.
The first six weeks of the 2022 season have been bumpy in San Francisco. The Niners have a win over the rival Rams to their credit, but they also have losses to two teams with losing records. Last week, the Niners were handled with relative ease by a Falcons team no one is slating for the Super Bowl.
Like the team itself, San Francisco's offense has been uneven. But even before the trade, quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo expressed confidence that the offense was turning a corner:
"I mean, there's just certain plays where there's a trust factor. I think that plays a big part in any offense, just between the quarterback and the skill guys, there's a trust factor that, it's not just given either. You got to earn that stuff, you got to earn it in here, in the locker room out on the field, away from the facility, whatever you do. I think there's a trust factor that we're moving in the right direction. We just need to make that happen quicker rather than later."
San Francisco's offensive issues can be partly attributed to thrusting Garoppolo back into the lineup without the benefit of much offseason work after Lance suffered a season-ending injury in Week 2. And given that McCaffrey has next to no time to prepare to face the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, Shanahan allowed that he may not play in Week 7.
"I'm still up in the air whether we're going to be able to get him here for Sunday or not," he said. "I know for sure he'll be here the following Sunday. But that's kind of why I'm in a wait-and-see approach right now."
Once McCaffrey is up to speed, though, the 49ers offense should start heading in that right direction at warp speed.
Under Shanahan, the Niners have been one of the NFL's better running teams using a menagerie of late-round picks and undrafted free agents. This year, the 49ers rank 12th in the league in rushing. Last year, they were seventh. Players like Elijah Mitchell and Jeff Wilson Jr. were great finds by the 49ers, but they're not remotely the level of talent that McCaffrey is.
With McCaffrey in the fold, the 49ers have the best assemblage of skill-position talent in the NFC. Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel at wide receiver. George Kittle at tight end. And now McCaffrey. Both Samuel and McCaffrey can do damage from all over the formation as well—chess pieces that are a dream for Shanahan and the stuff of nightmares for opposing defensive coordinators.
Add in that the 49ers should get offensive tackle Trent Williams back soon and that San Francisco's defense ranks first in the NFL in total defense and second against the pass, against the run and in points allowed, and the only thing standing between the Niners and the title of the NFC's best team on paper is Garoppolo.
However, even if you think the 49ers aren't the NFC's best team, they are easily the front-runners in the NFC West. The Rams are 26th in the league in offense thanks to a dismal run game (Los Angeles reportedly made its own push for McCaffrey) and offensive line. The Seattle Seahawks are a nice story, but their atrocious defense caps their ceiling. And while the Arizona Cardinals are not a bad team, they are also not a good one.
It seems odd to be this excited about a team that will more likely than not be 3-4 in a few days. But even if San Francisco loses to the Chiefs on Sunday, it won't be more than one game back of first with 10 to play. Next week's tilt with the Rams will feature a much different team than the one we've seen to date. A more dangerous team.
And come February, we may well look back on Oct. 20 as the day the balance of power shifted in the NFC.