The blockbuster trade that sent former All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey from Carolina to San Francisco involved some ole fashioned mid-week competition between the rival Niners and Los Angeles Rams.
The Panthers ultimately sent McCaffrey back to the Bay Area, where he once starred at Stanford, in exchange for second-, third- and fourth-round picks in the 2023 draft plus a 2024 fifth.
"Yeah, that's a lot of picks to give up," said one AFC general manager remarking on the trade Friday morning.
The Panthers pitted the Rams and Niners against one another as the two teams continue to battle for NFC West — and NFC, and NFL — dominance. The 49ers' ability to include a 2023 fourth-round pick took them over the top, as the Rams had traded their 2023 fourth last year to acquire Sony Michel.
As reported last week, the Rams and Niners were interested in McCaffrey, as were the Bills and Broncos. Denver never made a serious offer in Carolina's view, and I'm told Bills GM Brandon Beane was protecting his team's first-round pick. Buffalo was the only team of the quartet with a first-round pick in 2023.
The 49ers now get one of the best weapons in football when healthy. It's a full circle moment in the NFL, where McCaffrey now plays under Kyle Shanahan, whose father used to coach Ed McCaffrey with the Broncos.
"This would be their dream," one NFC personnel executive said Thursday afternoon of the future pairing.
The 49ers are paying less than $700,000 for McCaffrey for the rest of the season, and then he'll have cap hits of $12 million the next two years. "They'd be crazy to touch his contract," said another NFC personnel source. "It's non-guaranteed money and no incentives."
In 2019, McCaffrey became the first 1,000-yard rusher and 1,000-yard receiver since Marshall Faulk. Following the season, his third in the NFL, he was set up for a major payday in Carolina or elsewhere. One source indicated there was some interest in a trade to his hometown Denver Broncos if the Panthers couldn't reach a contract extension, though it was considered to be a leverage play more than reality.
Carolina had seen All Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly retire in January 2020. The Panthers released All Pro tight end Greg Olsen in February. That made two of McCaffrey's closest friends now out the door. And then Cam Newton was released in March. Three faces of the franchise were gone, and Carolina was left with little choice but to sign McCaffrey to the richest running back contract in NFL history as it faced an uncertain pandemic year.
But the Panthers wouldn't see great return on the four-year, $64 million deal. McCaffrey dealt with a number of injuries in the following seasons, and by February 2022 the Panthers began entertaining calls on McCaffrey. Then, last week, following the dismissal of head coach Matt Rhule, Carolina became even more amenable to a deal that would recoup draft compensation in what's sure to be a lost 2022 season.
Did it have to be this way for Carolina? Hindsight's 20/20, but Carolina had options over the last 10 months that could have led to a different result. Team owner David Tepper opted to retain Rhule following a 5-12 season, his second of a seven-year contract. Carolina failed in its pursuit of Desahun Watson and turned its attention to Baker Mayfield and Jimmy Garoppolo.
Sources say Rhule pushed for Mayfield, and there was plenty of skepticism in the building around Garoppolo. The Niners quarterback was fresh off throwing-shoulder surgery and was due about $25 million in 2022 with no contract adjustment. The Panthers opted for the healthier and cheaper option in Mayfield, and now McCaffrey is playing out west with Garoppolo.
Carolina now has a full complement of draft picks for 2023, and it's possible though unlikely there will be more. The Panthers would require a first-round pick and then some for receiver D.J. Moore, whom they've already paid nearly $20 million since extending him in March. Defensive end Brian Burns and defensive tackle Derrick Brown are also likely to be retained short of massive offers that aren't expected to materialize.
The 3-3 49ers now add McCaffrey to an offense operated by one of the best minds in football in Shanahan. His addition will lift a Niners offense that has surprisingly struggled with Garoppolo, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel.
San Francisco currently doesn't have a first- or second-round pick in 2023. The Niners have two third-rounders, a fifth-rounder and two seventh-rounders, though they could get more third-round compensatory picks if defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans gets a head coach gig or if player personnel director Ran Carthon lands a general manager position.
Last year's NFC title game saw the Rams eke out a win against San Francisco. In Week 4 this season, the 49ers topped the Rams 24-9. And the two teams have their rematch in Week 8.
On this one, though, the Niners came out on top.