The San Francisco 49ers are once again Super Bowl favorites as they enter the 2023 NFL season. With the fourth-best odds to win at DraftKings Sportsbook, expectations are high for a team that doesn’t know who their starting quarterback will be in Week 1. However, the 49ers could have a bigger problem than whether Brock Purdy or Trey Lance will be under center this season.
Star running back Christian McCaffrey touched the ball the second-most times in his career last year. Considering his lack of durability throughout his career, we dive into whether the 49ers need to be concerned about their ability to replace McCaffrey if he suffers an injury.
What To Make of the 49ers’ RB Committee?
With McCaffrey totaling 329 touches for 1,880 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2022, he firmly re-established himself as one of the premier talents in the NFL. His numbers were absurd after joining the 49ers following six games with the Panthers. He ranked No. 1 amongst backs in receiving yards, second in receptions, seventh in rushing yards, and ninth in carries.
There’s no doubt McCaffrey made the most of his opportunity to give new life to his career. Despite the fact McCaffrey had played in only 10 games across 2020 and 2021, the 49ers traded a boatload of picks to Carolina to ensure they had a featured star in the backfield. Even 49ers general manager John Lynch admitted they traded “a lot.”
Various ankle, shoulder, thigh, and hamstring injuries could have diminished McCaffrey’s ability to handle a large volume role. The 49ers may not have envisioned asking so much of the back right away after acquiring him, but quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo suffered a foot injury that ended his season in Week 13.
McCaffrey touched the ball 16 or more times in seven of the next eight games through the postseason as head coach Kyle Shanahan sought to ease the burden on Purdy.
Nevertheless, too much of a load on McCaffrey opens the 49ers to vulnerability. Not only has McCaffrey dealt with a variety of soft tissue injuries, but so has backup Elijah Mitchell. Mitchell has been incredibly efficient through two seasons, averaging 4.9 yards per carry. But he also missed six games in 2021 and 12 games in 2022, spurring the McCaffrey deal.
His injury list includes a shoulder injury, a rib injury, a fractured finger, a concussion, three knee sprains, and a hamstring strain. It’s an awful stretch of nicks and bruises that have cost him availability. The 49ers, however, opted against reinforcing the position this offseason.
The 49ers’ primary backups behind their top duo are Jordan Mason and Tyrion Davis-Price. Mason had more opportunities between the two players last year when McCaffrey needed a breather despite being an undrafted free agent signing and Davis-Price being a third-round pick. He looked like the better player as well, with Davis-Price looking like an overdrafted plodder with little value.
The lack of competition added to the room was surprising, given the 49ers instead invested in two backup tight ends, a fifth wide receiver, and a backup middle linebacker in the 2023 NFL Draft. It’s possible Lynch has confidence he could sign a veteran in a pinch, as Leonard Fournette, Kareem Hunt, Darrell Henderson, Kenyan Drake, and Marlon Mack are still free agents.
Mason, also a big back at 223 pounds, had only one game with more than eight carries as a rookie. He finished his Week 14 matchup against Tampa Bay with 11 carries for 56 yards. From Weeks 13-15, he had 171 of his season-total 258 yards as the 49ers fully embraced a simplified offense for Purdy.
Whether Mason can be dynamic or creative enough to shoulder a bigger role if he’s needed to is unlikely to work out. Therein lies the 49ers’ backup running back problem, as we can be fairly confident there will be a time when McCaffrey needs to dial back his touches, and Mitchell is again dealing with an ailment.
The best solution to this is possibly signing an aging veteran or seeing if Miami would trade Jeff Wilson Jr. or Raheem Mostert if they land Dalvin Cook. Then again, Shanahan could work magic and reveal that either Ronald Awatt or Khalan Laborn are upgrades on Mason and Davis-Price despite being undrafted rookies from this year’s class.