July 15, 2024

Kyle Shanahan says 49ers have to protect Christian McCaffrey from himself; here’s how they can accomplish that


Christian McCaffrey has pretty much always been a high-usage player. Since a rookie season where he total 197 touches in 16 games for an average of 12.3 per week, McCaffrey has averaged at least 19.4 touches per game in each of the last six seasons. He’s had two years over 25 per game, and the two seasons where he dipped below 20 came due to either injury (2021) or mid-season trade (2022).

McCaffrey led the NFL with 339 touches last season, giving him an astounding 550 touches (431 carries and 119 receptions) in 27 games (20.4 per game) since arriving in San Francisco. He also played 81% of San Francisco’s offensive snaps in 2023, though that figure doesn’t account for the fact that he sat out Week 17 with the Niners already having clinched the NFC’s No. 1 seed. He played 68% of the snaps after arriving via trade in 2022, but that number ticked up to 73% when you don’t include the debut game where he only played 29% of the snaps after arriving mid-week. 

McCaffrey also just received a contract extension heading into his age-28 season, so it’s no surprise that head coach Kyle Shanahan wants to find a way to manage the star back’s workload and ensure that he remains healthy. 

“We have guys that can run the ball,” Shanahan said, via The Athletic. “We have to protect Christian from himself. He doesn’t like to ever come out no matter what the situation is and I do think that’s something we could protect him with more. When you are such a threat in the pass game, it’s a little bit different. … But if he’s just taking the wear and tear with 20 carries and stuff every game — and he’s definitely good enough to do that and he has proved he can stay healthy — but you’d like to take some of that off of him and give it to other guys also.”

The Niners have a strong backup in Elijah Mitchell, who is not the same quality pass-game threat as McCaffrey but has always been effective when running the ball. They also drafted Isaac Guerendo this year, they still have Jordan Mason, and they signed former Packers backup Patrick Taylor. And of course, we have seen that they are willing to use Deebo Samuel and occasionally Brandon Aiyuk to run the ball.

So, there are certainly paths to the Niners actually limiting McCaffrey’s snap and touch rates, so that he doesn’t decline as steeply or as quickly as a typical back in his late-20s. The question is whether they will actually bring themselves to take a player of his caliber off the field more often, and allow some of those other backs to do the more grinding, lower-value between-the-tackles running on early downs and save McCaffrey for higher-leverage situations and usage in the passing game. And that remains to be seen.