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ESPN lists the 49ers supporting cast as the best in the league

What a difference Christian McCaffrey makes

San Francisco 49ers Offseason Workout Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images

Before Christian McCaffrey arrived, the 49ers offense sputtered, was inconsistent, and wasn’t feared. After the Niners acquired CMC, their offense went from 21st to 1st in DVOA, 19th to 1st in EPA per play, and 26th to second in quarterback rating.

Brock Purdy deserves credit for pushing the ball down the field and taking more risks, but No. 23 was often the best player on the field.

ESPN went through each supporting cast, and couldn’t find a team with a better group than your 49ers:

1. San Francisco 49ers

2022 rank: 3 | 2021 rank: 12

Well, you saw the Brock Purdy experience, right? The 49ers were third in these rankings a year ago, and then they upgraded from Elijah Mitchell and Tyrion Davis-Price to Christian McCaffrey at running back.

The Panthers actually improved on offense after they moved on from McCaffrey, but the star back gave coach Kyle Shanahan another torture device to use on the league’s linebackers. McCaffrey averaged just under 2.0 yards per route run with a 26.6% target rate after joining the 49ers, which is right about what Garrett Wilson did over the same time frame as a receiver for the Jets. McCaffrey threw in 159 carries for 746 yards as a bonus.

Beyond the CMC addition, it was a different sort of season for the 49ers, which might inform how we feel about them in 2023. Deebo Samuel’s long touchdown rate regressed toward the mean, as he went from bringing in five catches for 50 yards or more in 2021 to just one a year ago. (He added a 74-yard score in the postseason.) Samuel attributed the decline to being out of shape, which is scary when you consider he still finished second in yards after catch over expectation per target. He’s clearly the best yards-after-catch receiver in the league.

Brandon Aiyuk had a ho-hum 1,015-yard, eight-touchdown season, while George Kittle finally delivered on what has felt like a years-long touchdown deficit. He went nuclear over the final month of the season, racking up 265 receiving yards and seven touchdowns from Week 14 on. The bruising tight end missed the first two games of the season and then subsequently stayed healthy, an exciting development for a player who hasn’t played a full season since that breakout campaign in 2018. Kittle is not going to average 3.0 yards per route run again like he did that season, but he has reinforced his standing as one of the best receiving tight ends in football to go with all he does as a blocker.

You can poke two holes in the 49ers’ playmakers for the purposes of this piece. One is the issue I just mentioned: A lot of these guys have injury histories. Kittle has missed time every season. Samuel is yet to play a full season as a pro. McCaffrey played 10 games between 2020 and 2021. Aiyuk and Kyle Juszczyk have been relatively healthy, but San Francisco getting all of these guys on the field for most of the second half of the season was a pleasant surprise.

Calling McCaffrey a “torture device for linebackers” is perfect.

McCaffrey had 56 targets inside of 10 yards last year. His average depth of target was actually behind the line of scrimmage. But CMC still had 23 first downs, averaged over seven yards per reception, and forced eight missed tackles. Giving that type of player a two-way go against a linebacker in an offense that already has so much going on made it an impossible task to defense CMC.

Bill Barnwell asked which player is being aided the most by Kyle Shanahan:

The other is the presence of Shanahan, who has to be regarded as the best offensive playcaller in football. He obviously makes their lives easier and puts them in position to succeed. We just saw McCaffrey hit new heights after joining the 49ers and upgrading his playcaller dramatically. Purdy played well and clearly has plenty of help, but seventh-round picks don’t just turn into star point guards overnight. It’s fair to wonder what these players would all look like with, say, Matt Patricia calling plays.

With that being said, which one of these guys looks like a Shanahan creation? McCaffrey was an even more devastating playmaker during his peak seasons in Carolina. Samuel looks like a preternatural runner in the open field. Kittle is one of the most physically overwhelming players in the league. I don’t think Juszczyk has the sort of route-running ability to rack up chunk plays as a receiver elsewhere, so maybe you can make the case he’s the player being most aided by Shanahan, but these guys would be stars no matter where they go.

If they continue to make Purdy (or Sam Darnold or even Trey Lance) look like a franchise quarterback in 2023, it’ll be hard to argue against the 49ers having the best playmakers in football.

Juszczyk is a reasonable answer, but it has to be whoever is playing quarterback. Earlier this morning, we went through some advanced stats for each quarterback the 49ers would play, and Purdy had better numbers than every non-Patrick Mahomes quarterback. It’s incredible how Shanahan’s system props up quarterbacks.

Shanahan had fans debating whether Jimmy Garoppolo was a top-10 quarterback.