SANTA CLARA, Calif – Long before signing bonuses, guarantees, and the future of his job were contentious topics, Christian McCaffrey’s football ambitions were much simpler.
As a 7-year-old playing for the Hawks in Parker, Colorado, McCaffrey tugged on his No. 26 jersey, scanned the environment, and soon decided there was only one position he wanted to play.
“I remember in little league, the running back got the ball every play because there’s not a lot of passing going on when you’re 7 or 8 years old,” McCaffrey explained. “And I loved the idea of scoring touchdowns.”
Five years after Le’Veon Bell refused to sign the franchise tag tender and sat out the whole season because the Pittsburgh Steelers refused to reward his dual-threat abilities with the expensive deal he desired, the falling value of running backs is once again at the center of NFL debate.
Running backs Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs signed one-year franchise tag deals with the New York Giants and Las Vegas Raiders, respectively, this offseason, while Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler tried and failed to negotiate a raise, and the Indianapolis Colts and running back Jonathan Taylor remain at odds.
Christian McCaffrey sent Ahkello Witherspoon to the stars 🤩 pic.twitter.com/TggjxEN3KV
— Alex Tran (@nineralex) September 18, 2023
The repercussions from those contract stalemates was so severe that a group of elite running backs, including McCaffrey, Barkley, Jacobs, Ekeler, and Cleveland Browns’ Nick Chubb, met via Zoom in July to discuss methods to kickstart the position’s market. However, as Chubb put it at the time, “right now, there’s really nothing we can do.”
Even the backs who are anticipated to lead the way for greater paydays are vulnerable to the issue that clubs use to justify not paying them: injury.
With the 49ers hosting the Giants at Levi’s Stadium on Thursday (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video) with Barkley, Ekeler, and Chubb out due to injury, the only thing running backs can control is how they perform on the field. McCaffrey’s ability to get his hands on the ball and score from everywhere provides a model for other running backs to follow in an increasingly positionless game.
— 𝙏𝙝𝙚𝙎𝙁𝙉𝙞𝙣𝙚𝙧𝙨 (@TheSFNiners) September 20, 2023
McCaffrey achieved what Bell couldn’t, becoming the highest-paid running back in 2020, a deal that still tops the market for the position with an average of $16.02 million per year.
It might also be the ticket for the next generation of running backs to achieve NFL success and earn salaries comparable to or greater than McCaffrey’s.
“They say running backs are replaceable because we’re just running the ball and stuff,” Detroit Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs, the 12th overall choice in the 2023 draft, said last week. “The distinction is that certain backs can catch the ball and run routes out of the slot or on the outside. I believe it plays a significant impact in how organizations value you, and you can see that certain backs aren’t getting paid as much as others, but the ones that are are flexible. They go above and above for the team.”
Christian McCaffrey Rushing TD (3) pic.twitter.com/rEK6W5agIS
— NFL TD Videos (@NFLTDVideos2023) September 22, 2023
IN JULY 1997, Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders agreed to a contract deal that would pay him about $5.8 million each season, making him the highest-paid athlete in the NFL.
McCaffrey’s salary is the highest average at his position heading into the 2023 season, but 112 players make more per year, including six on his own team (defensive end Nick Bosa, tackle Trent Williams, linebacker Fred Warner, defensive tackles Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave, and receiver Deebo Samuel).
Despite this, McCaffrey, whom the Niners acquired from the Carolina Panthers in October 2022 in exchange for second, third, and fourth-round picks in 2023 and a fifth-round pick in 2024, is in a position that loves running backs the highest.
Christian McCaffrey Rushing TD (2) pic.twitter.com/4HPY7o9XpT
— NFL TD Videos (@NFLTDVideos2023) September 17, 2023
Since the arrival of coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch in 2017, the Niners have routinely committed draft capital, large sums of money, or a mix of the two in the position.
The Niners have had a different running back lead the club in rushing each season under Shanahan and Lynch. Undrafted athletes like Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert were among those selected, as were early-round choices like McCaffrey (first round, 2017) and Carlos Hyde (second round, 2014).
Since Shanahan and Lynch took control, the 49ers have ranked seventh in the NFL in running yards per game (125.35) and sixth in rushing touchdowns (106). While Shanahan’s production has shown other teams that running backs are replaceable, he hasn’t stopped hunting for improvements.
As he points out, it wasn’t until his father Mike’s Denver Broncos discovered a transcendent back in Terrell Davis that they got over the hump and won a Super Bowl. Prior to Davis’ arrival, the Broncos had lost four Super Bowls as a team, including three in four seasons from 1986 to 1989, in part due to quarterback John Elway’s reliance on his powerful right arm.
Davis remedied that problem by running for a total of 6,413 yards from 1995 to 1998, including 2,008 yards en route to the Most Valuable Player title in 1998. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1998.
Christian McCaffrey has scored a touchdown in TWELVE straight games 🤯
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) September 22, 2023
“It’s really hard to win in this league without a good running game,” Shanahan explained. “Regardless of who’s back there, we’ve always committed to the run.” I feel that always committing to it is what makes a football team good. But having a difference maker back there makes a significant impact.”
Since 2017, the 49ers have picked four running backs (Joe Williams, Elijah Mitchell, Tre Sermon, and Tyrion Davis-Price), with all save Mitchell (the most successful of the group) going in the fourth round or earlier. In 2018, they signed running back Jerick McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million contract in the hopes that he might be the sort of all-around back who could take over for McCaffrey. McKinnon tore his ACL in his right knee shortly before his first season and never completely recovered as a Niner, participating in 16 games over three seasons until restarting his career with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Since 2003, a Shanahan-coached club has only had the same top rusher in back-to-back seasons once (Alfred Morris with Washington in 2012-2013).
Shanahan is so committed to running backs that after the second night of this year’s draft, he made fun of himself for selecting a kicker with a third-round choice, saying, “I still can’t believe we didn’t take a running back.”
— OurSF49ers (@OurSf49ers) September 13, 2023
There was no need this time, not with McCaffrey under contract through the 2025 season and back to full health after ankle, shoulder, and hamstring injuries limited him to 10 total games in 2020 and 2021 – the type of ailments that come standard with the position and have contributed to the running back market coming to a halt.
The Niners made no significant additions to the running back group, with McCaffrey and promising backups Mitchell, Jordan Mason, and Davis-Price already in place.
“We’re fortunate,” Lynch explained. “Can we play without our star? I believe we can. Do we really want to? No. That’s why we spent so much to get him back.”
McCaffrey grew up in Colorado with an apparent football influence in his father, Ed, who was a wide receiver for the Broncos under Mike Shanahan. McCaffrey learnt from his father, but he also admired his favorite running backs, such as Davis, Sanders, Tomlinson, and Marshall Faulk.
Davis was the hometown hero, expertly executing Denver’s wide zone run game, while Sanders demonstrated how to shatter ankles. McCaffrey recognized in Tomlinson and Faulk an interesting combination of his father’s receiving prowess and Davis and Sanders’ running abilities.
In a world of between-the-tackles backs like Jerome Bettis, Emmitt Smith, and Eddie George, Faulk and Tomlinson were considered unicorns at the time, each winning an MVP award on their way to finishing fifth and sixth all time in yards from scrimmage and landing in the Hall of Fame.
Since then, a lot has changed.
“Now, the running backs are those guys who have that ability to catch the ball out of the backfield,” Bettis, who once had 30 catches in a season during his 13-year career, explained. “Perhaps they used to play wide receiver and do those things.” You can see them evolving into the running back position, and they now have a considerably different skill set than they did previously. So you’re going to see it more and more because that’s how the new running back looks.”
The “new” running back resembles McCaffrey, who is 5-foot-11, 210 pounds and recorded a 4.48 40-yard sprint at the NFL combine in 2017. More than the numbers, his versatility and dedication to his trade have propelled him beyond basic positional labels.
McCaffrey spent endless hours as a child working with his father and siblings on everything that went into playing wide receiver, despite the fact that it wasn’t his position. McCaffrey worked out as a receiver, learning how to get in and out of breaks “on a dime” and applying those teachings to the maneuvers he’d make as a running back.
McCaffrey was employed as a running back/defensive back/punter when he enrolled at Valor Christian High in suburban Denver. He also ran track and played basketball and baseball.
“It was all about being the best athlete,” stated McCaffrey.
When opponents piled more defenders into the run box to stifle the run, McCaffrey shifted to the slot or out wide and executed routes designed to overcome man coverage.
Each week, he would master a route tree developed expressly to target that opponent. His father would coach him on slants, goes, hitches, and stop routes, emphasizing the significance of reaching the correct yardage markings, taking the precise steps, and maintaining good timing.
When McCaffrey studied Faulk and Tomlinson, he would take notes on log plays rather than particular things they accomplished.
Above all, McCaffrey has continued to focus on the foundations of the position. Shanahan’s strategy may be intimidating for offensive players since it requires them to pay attention to every detail, no matter how little.
McCaffrey must know where the run is meant to go, the path he’s supposed to take to get there, the timing of when he’s supposed to hit the hole, and the spacing of where everyone else is supposed to be while he’s doing it on any given play.
“It’s a constant learning curve,” McCaffrey explained. “You can’t get enough reps, and if you don’t rep it, you’ll lose it.” You are always learning. You must continuously strive to improve.”
It’s a good reminder for everyone, not just running backs.
Marcus Allen was ahead of his time in many ways. In an era of power runners, Allen’s 6-foot-2, 210-pound frame consistently rated among the league’s best ball catchers out of the backfield. Allen averaged 59.2 catches for 553.2 yards and 2.4 receiving touchdowns from 1983 to 1987.
In 2022, six running backs had at least 59 receptions, and four had more than Allen’s career best of 68. With 107 points, Ekeler dominated the league.
“I’d like to think that if I was playing today, I could still have an impact on the game,” Allen remarked. “Today, you have to be a more versatile player than ever before.” Never leave the field as a third-down back because you need to be able to grab the ball, pass it, and block. And, of course, sprinting with the ball.”
It’s a task that appears to be appreciated by the younger generation. Jahmyr Gibbs and Atlanta Falcons running back Bijan Robinson, who was selected eighth overall in this year’s selection, were the first pair of running backs to be selected in the top 12 since Leonard Fournette and McCaffrey in 2017.
When running backs coach Tashard Choice, who played seven NFL seasons at the position, pointed it out to Gibbs as a freshman at Georgia Tech, he realized the value of pass catching. From then, Gibbs began to pay more attention to McCaffrey, Ekeler, and Alvin Kamara of the New Orleans Saints, a two-time All-Pro who surpassed 3,000 career running and 3,000 career receiving yards faster (66 games) than any other player in history.
Gibbs discovered he and McCaffrey are about the same size when he arrived to the combine in March. This strengthened Gibbs’ opinion that he is not too little to play running back in the NFL.
Robinson likes not to think too far ahead about the influence players like himself and Gibbs may have on the position’s worth, but he recognizes the ways they can benefit if they play well.
“For me, I’m just trying to stay where my feet are and understand that maybe one day, we can be the change,” Robinson added.
McCaffrey sits down for a 20-minute interview about the development of his position, fresh off the practice field in the middle of training camp. He chuckles as he recalls Hall of Famers Bettis and Allen pointing to him as the standard for future running backs to emulate. He also emphasizes that his approach is not the only way, praising Tennessee Titans rushing back Derrick Henry as a fantastic player in his own right, but with a more forceful, bruising style.
Above all, McCaffrey serves as a reminder that a player’s worth is ultimately determined by the clubs that sign the checks. As a result, the only thing he and his teammates can do is continue to enhance their game to the point where their value surpasses their position.
“When you talk about value, it has to come from the team,” he said. “We all have our own niche, but what makes the position so unique and valuable is the ability to use their best players in different ways to win games.”
Michael Rothstein and Eric Woodyard of ESPN NFL Nation contributed to this report.
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