Football

Fantasy Football: Christian McCaffrey trade fallout; what it means for 49ers and Panthers


Rumors have swirled around All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey over the past few weeks, and the San Francisco 49ers swung a massive trade to acquire him from the Carolina Panthers Thursday evening, in exchange for second-, third-, and fourth-round picks in the 2023 draft plus a 2024 fourth-rounder. It’s a huge trade for the 49ers, giving Kyle Shanahan another elite weapon for his offense. However, while it gets McCaffrey away from the moribund Panthers offense, it may not be much of an upgrade for his Fantasy appeal moving forward. 

Let’s take a look at what this trade means for both sides, starting with the 49ers acquisition of McCaffrey.

It’s not hard to see what the 49ers get out of this deal – another Swiss Army Knife weapon for Shanahan to lineup all over the field. The 49ers famously use Deebo Samuel as a running back, but they’ll also line George Kittle and Brandon Aiyuk up in the backfield occasionally, and they use fullback Kyle Juszczyk in tons of interesting ways, too. You can be sure they’re going to find interesting ways to use McCaffrey.

That being said, though the 49ers offense is a much, much better one than the Panthers, this probably isn’t a massive upgrade for McCaffrey’s value. Sure, he’ll score more touchdowns – he has just three in the first six games – but the 49ers probably aren’t going to make him the focal point of their offense in quite the same way the Panthers historically have.

McCaffrey is a great runner, and the 49ers are surely going to maximize him in that regard. McCaffrey has managed to average 4.6 yards per carry on a Panthers offense that can’t really do anything right now, and the 49ers have turned a series of late-round backs like Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert, and Jeff Wilson into viable Fantasy options. McCaffrey could put up some massive rushing numbers in this offense.

However, he’s entering a much more crowded passing game, with Samuel, Kittle, and Aiyuk combining for target shares over 65% between them. That doesn’t necessarily leave room for McCaffrey to be in the 20% range where he’s spent most of the past few years. McCaffrey’s a great runner, but it’s his pass-catching that makes him arguably the best player in Fantasy. And while the 49ers are sure to use him as a pass-catcher more than they’ve used their running backs in the passing game in the past – they have just 13 targets to running backs this season – he almost certainly doesn’t have the same 90-catch upside in this 49ers offense.

That’s not to say McCaffrey can’t still be the best player in Fantasy in this offense, of course. He’s a great player, and Kyle Shanahan does a great job of getting the ball in his best players’ hands. He’s gonna get 15-plus carries and 4-5 catches most weeks because Shanahan knows what he’s doing. And, if this 49ers offense is one of the five best in the NFL the rest of the way, there are probably going to be enough touchdowns for McCaffrey to be a top-five RB. He just may not have the 30-PPR-point upside we’ve seen in an offense that may not feature him as much as a pass-catcher.

The math gets a bit wonky for the rest of the 49ers’ principles, especially Deebo Samuel, who has already seen his rushing game role diminish over the past month or so. While I’m sure Shanahan is excited about putting defenses in a bind by featuring McCaffrey and Samuel in the backfield at the same time if he’s been hesitant to feature Samuel of late – six carries over the past three games entering Week 7 – when Jeff Wilson is the alternative, is he really going to take opportunities away from McCaffrey, especially near the goal line?

The pie hasn’t been quite big enough for all of Samuel, Kittle, and Aiyuk to feast every week already, and now they’ve got another big mouth to share with. The 49ers are going to be a nightmare to play defense against, but they also might be a bit of a nightmare for Fantasy. Samuel is still a WR1; Kittle is still a TE1; McCaffrey might be the RB1. But there might be some times when you find yourself frustrated by the distribution of touches in any given week.

That may be a concern for the future, of course. The more immediate concern is whether there is enough time for McCaffrey to get up to speed in time for Week 7’s game against the Chiefs. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reports that McCaffrey is likely to play, but will likely be focused on a red zone package, with his role growing when he has more time in practice to get up to speed.

It makes McCaffrey a bit of a risky start for Week 7, though it also takes Jeff Wilson mostly out of consideration for starting this week. He could have 15 carries; he could have five. We probably won’t know how big a role McCaffrey has this weekend until we see it, which makes it tough to trust either. I’ll still likely rank McCaffrey as a top-12 RB as long as he’s active, but Wilson will be more like an RB3 for Week 7 – and that’ll probably be the highest he’s ranked the rest of the season, assuming McCaffrey stays healthy.

As for the Panthers’ side of this trade … we may have just seen the last reason to care about this offense at all shipped out. We’ll see some kind of combination of Chuba Hubbard and D’Onta Foreman replacing McCaffrey, but I don’t think I’m telling any tales out of school when I say that neither is anywhere near McCaffrey’s level as a talent.

And this Panthers offense has been an absolute disaster so far. McCaffrey on his own, playing 80% of the snaps or more every week and serving as arguably the No. 1 target in the passing game can overcome it, but a Hubbard/Foreman combination probably won’t.

Hubbard and Foreman both probably need to be rostered in most leagues, of course, but I just don’t think there’s much to be excited about here. I would guess Foreman takes on most of the early downs while Hubbard handles most of the passing situations, which would probably make Hubbard the better Fantasy option. But his ceiling is probably, like, a low-end RB2 – if the Panthers decide to feature him in the passing game.

Maybe D.J. Moore can be more of a focal point and get going, but it’s hard to see how he’s going to benefit from even more defensive attention – the Panthers traded Robbie Anderson earlier in the week, too. Moore is a talented player, but this situation has been impossible to overcome so far, and I don’t think it’s any better now. 

Maybe the Panthers will surprise us, but right now, I’m not expecting anyone in that offense to be worth starting for Fantasy moving forward. 





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