Whenever there is mention of the 49ers running back room, the conversation typically starts with Christian McCaffrey. Which is understandable given the talent he possesses and the way he elevated the ceiling of the entire 49ers offense following a midseason trade to acquire him from the Carolina Panthers.
McCaffrey did it all for a 49ers offense that rattled off a thirty point per game scoring average over the last 11 games of the regular season prior to his arrival in the Bay Area. Whether it was adding a dynamic element to the rushing attack or dicing up defenders as a weapon in the passing game, McCaffrey carried a significant load
However, as incredible as it may be to watch week after week, in a league that is as physically taxing as the NFL, it's paramount that the 49ers find a way to maintain McCaffrey’s ability to be as efficient as he can with the touches he is going to receive on a weekly basis.
The best way to do that? Finding a way to compliment his usage with another player who can pace his touches, with a player who also has the ability to wear out opposing defenses with a bruising level of physicality. Thankfully, the 49ers already have someone who fits that mold on their roster in Jordan Mason.
Mason is quietly coming off an extremely impressive rookie season that saw him start by cracking the final 53-man roster despite being an undrafted rookie, and finished with him averaging an eye-popping 6.5 yards per carry on the 45 rushing attempts he had over the course of the season.
It was evident during training camp and the preseason that Mason ran with a level of physicality that very few players in this league inherently possess. That aggressive downhill mentality parlayed itself into a specialized role of sorts that had the 49ers lean on Mason to put the finishing touches on numerous wins down the backstretch of the season.
Of the 270 rushing yards that Mason recorded in 2022, 190 of them came after he was contacted by a defender. That came out to a jaw-dropping average of 4.22 yards after contact per carry, which was the second-highest total in the NFL among running backs with double-digit touches last season.
Not only does Mason have the physicality to wear down opposing defenses, he also has the explosion to reel off a massive gain every time he has the ball in his hands. 16 percent of Mason’s carries during his rookie season went for over ten yards. For comparison’s sake, as good as McCaffrey was, only 13 percent of his runs went for over ten yards.
What better way to maximize the talents of McCaffrey than by allowing Mason the opportunity to wear down those very same defenders with his punishing style of play?
Put yourself in the shoes of a defender facing this 49ers defense for a moment. You’ve spent a considerable amount of time and energy having to corral one of the most dynamic talents to ever play the position.
Now he is jogging to the sideline for a rest, and you find yourself breathing a sigh of relief, thinking to yourself you finally have a moment of peace. Fast-forward 30 seconds, and you are now on your back on the turf staring up at the sky, and the last thing you remember is seeing the number 24 barreling towards you before you got bulldozed.
Is that a bit dramatic? Quite possibly yes, but it's May and I miss football, and I’m aiming for dramatic effect here. And honestly, given the data we have from Mason’s rookie season, is a scenario like that really all that far-fetched?
At the end of the day, McCaffrey is a star and no matter how complicated football gets, the outcome of most games will almost always boil down to which team is able to get the ball in the hands of their most talented players as often as possible.
For the 49ers, the name of the game has to be valuing quality as much as quantity when it comes to allocating these weekly touches for McCaffrey. Mason and the physicality that he plays with is the key to maximizing those McCaffrey touches.
Thunder and lightning, shake and bake, or whatever other phrase you want to plug in and use here, that's what McCaffrey and Mason have the potential to be for this 49ers offense.