When the Carolina Panthers sent superstar running back Christian McCaffrey in a trade to the San Francisco 49ers, it signaled something substantial for both franchises. For the 49ers, it was a sign that the team was ready to go all in on the 2022-2023 season. For Carolina, it marked a changing of the guard. A new era in Panthers football.
With the 2022 regular season concluded, let’s revisit the trade and its ramifications for both teams.
Revisiting the Christian McCaffrey Trade Details
“Hey Siri, what’s the definition of a win-win?” Answering in an eerily humanoid, yet somehow still pleasant voice, Siri says, “In October 2022, Christian McCaffrey was traded from the Carolina Panthers to the San Francisco 49ers in exchange for four draft picks.”
Just a couple of weeks before the November trade deadline, the Panthers shipped McCaffrey to the Bay Area in exchange for a haul of draft picks from the 49ers. San Fran relinquished a 2023 second-round pick, third-round pick, and fourth-round pick and threw in a 2024 fifth-round pick to seal the deal. The 49ers received one of the premier offensive playmakers in the NFL.
It was, no doubt, a prudent move for both sides.
Implications for the Panthers
At the time, Carolina was just under two weeks removed from having fired former head coach Matt Rhule and was staring down the barrel of a rebuild. Unlike most teams undertaking such an endeavor, Carolina had several cornerstone players already on the roster to build around, including WR DJ Moore, CB Jaycee Horn, EDGE Brian Burns, S Jeremy Chinn, and DL Derrick Brown, to name a few.
So the team wasn’t necessarily years off from competing, and the fact that Carolina was squarely in the playoff race (albeit in the lowly NFC South) at the season’s end proves as much.
But sending McCaffrey for a treasure chest of picks was still the smart move. While the Panthers were in playoff contention, there’s no question that the team wasn’t going to make a dent in the postseason in 2022. The offense is still in need of a starting-caliber QB that can buoy the rest of the team, and earning extra picks in the premium rounds of the draft will help Carolina make a serious leap next season.
And let’s not forget: the Panthers’ running game still flourished sans McCaffrey. D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard each had career years, averaging 4.5 and 4.9 yards per carry, respectively.
That’s not to say that either has the raw talent or long-term upside that McCaffrey provides. They don’t. But the fact that Carolina’s rushing attack didn’t see a serious (or even slight) decline without McCaffrey helps demonstrate that he likely wasn’t going to be the difference between a Super Bowl run and their ultimate 7-10 finish on the year.
With six picks in the first four rounds of the 2023 draft, including the ninth overall, the Panthers are well-positioned to make the leap next season (and getting McCaffrey’s contract off the books doesn’t hurt either). Select a few defenders with those top picks after securing a quarterback in Round 1 or wooing a veteran via trade or free agency, and the Panthers will sneak up on the league next season.
Let’s just say, for argument’s sake, that the Panthers secure Derek Carr, Jimmy Garoppolo, Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, or another capable veteran before the draft.
Can you even imagine the havoc that someone like Clemson DT Bryan Bresee or his teammate EDGE Myles Murphy can wreak alongside Burns and Brown? 2023 NFC South QBs (whoever they’re going to be) will be shaking in their boots.
Implications for the 49ers
Cap space? Who cares. Draft picks? Who needs ’em? When you have top-tier playmakers at every offensive skill position, one of the best offensive lines in the league, and one of the sharpest offensive minds, you can put up points on just about anyone. The 49ers were a star running back away from securing that combo, and lo and behold, they snagged McCaffrey.
Now, there’s nobody stopping the San Fran offense, no matter who’s at quarterback. That’s no disrespect to seventh-round rookie QB Brock Purdy, who’s been exceptional over the start of his career. But my goodness, McCaffrey has lifted what was already a dangerous unit into being downright deadly.
Since landing McCaffrey, the 49ers have scored 31 or more points in seven of 11 games (and six of their last eight). Before the former first-round pick came to town, San Francisco exceeded that number just once in six contests.
So yes, the 49ers gave up a lot of draft capital. And yes, they took on a large contract in the process. And yes, it was for a player at a position at which teams almost always (emphasis on almost) regret paying out significant long-term deals. But it doesn’t matter. The 49ers are loaded up to win a Super Bowl, and McCaffrey is a player that pushes them over the top.
The former Panther has been exceptional in red and gold. McCaffrey has 100+ scrimmage yards or a touchdown in every game but one with the team (notwithstanding his 49ers debut in which he played just 29% of the snaps). Over the last six weeks of the regular season, he amassed an astounding 767 scrimmage yards and seven total touchdowns.
With McCaffrey in tow, who are defenses supposed to key in on? Commit defenders to spy on McCaffrey and double-cover Deebo Samuel, and George Kittle will make you pay. Double Kittle and Samuel, and McCaffrey will roam free out of the backfield. Try blanketing all three, and who takes Brandon Aiyuk?
McCaffrey has fit so seamlessly into Kyle Shanahan’s offense that it makes one wonder what could’ve been had the two been paired since the running back’s rookie season.
So will the 49ers be hurting for draft picks this year? Yes. With no picks in the first two rounds, it’ll be tough for the team to bring in inexpensive talent this offseason. But if McCaffrey is making snow angels in piles of confetti come mid-February while taking pictures with the Lombardi Trophy, no one’s going to care.