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Don’t let the current running back market fool you; McCaffrey is worth every penny

Monday’s recent deadline highlighted once again how the NFL values running backs. But CMC proved his value on the 49ers.

NFC Championship - San Francisco 49ers v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

On Monday afternoon, the deadline passed for teams to agree to long-term deals with players they had franchise tagged this past offseason. Among the players who could not secure a long-term contract were Josh Jacobs, Saquon Barkley, and Tony Pollard, three of the best players at the running back position in the entire league.

The discourse in the football world quickly shifted towards a passionate debate about what exactly the market should be for running backs and why we have seen the value steadily decreasing for a position that was once the backbone of NFL offenses in the not-so-distant past.

The biggest sticking point in this discussion seemed to be that teams should avoid putting themselves in a position where they would be forced to commit financial resources to a second contract to a running near the end of their rookie deal.

Those arguing against paying running backs made the case that due to the short shelf life you typically see with players at the position, it is unwise to make long-term investments that could hamstring your ability to fill out a roster elsewhere.

Now, while I can appreciate the logistics of maintaining cap flexibility in a sport where windows to contend are ever so fleeting, there is one fundamental issue with that line of thinking. It unfairly devalues the position as a whole and creates a narrative that you can simply replace that production every few years by cycling through backs on their rookie deals.

And what about a team like the 49ers, who now find themselves with an irreplaceable asset that happens to be the most expensive running back in the league based on average annual value and practical guaranteed dollars?

There was not a single non-quarterback in the NFL who was as big of a difference-maker for their offense as Christian McCaffrey was for the 49ers last season. He completely transformed the entire structure of an offense that saw its scoring average jump from 24.3 to 29.9 points per game following his arrival.

During the 11 regular season games that McCaffrey appeared in during the regular season, he accounted for 1,543 of the 49ers’ 5,156 total yards of offense. That equates to roughly 30 percent of the 49ers’ total offensive output coming at the hands of one player, who happens to play the position many people are bending over backward to tell you is worthless in today’s NFL.

It’s impossible to argue against McCaffrey’s impact on the field from the moment he put on a 49ers helmet last season. The eye test and data both tell us this is a transcendent player capable of single-handedly shifting the outcome of a game on any given Sunday.

So, why should it matter what position is next to his name on a depth chart? Would that take away from the fact that he accounted for 21 percent of the 49ers’ passing offense in the games he appeared in during the regular season? Of course not, but this perspective is key as we venture into the future years of the deal that McCaffrey and the 49ers restructured this past season.

In 2023, McCaffrey’s cap hit is just $3,424,000, which accounts for just 1.44 percent of the 49ers’ total cap space, beyond a bargain for a player who has produced nearly a third of the offensive output single-handedly during his stint with the team.

However, in 2024 and 2025, that number is scheduled to spike to $14,144,000 and $14,344,000, respectively. These bigger cap numbers typically scare people away from major financial commitments to running backs, particularly ones like McCaffrey, who will have accumulated significant mileage through his age-29 season in 2025.

This is where it is important to not focus on the cap number itself but rather the amount of total cap space it occupies. In those 2024 and 2025 seasons, McCaffrey’s current deal is scheduled to account for 5.88 and 5.57 percent of the 49ers’ cap space in each respective season.

When you factor in all the ways he can impact a football game, it’s objectively a tremendous value for the team to have him only taking up roughly 1/20th of the total cap space at their disposal.

Now ask yourself if you would trade 5 percent of your cap space for a player who can generate a third of your offense’s total output. Of course, you would.

As for the argument of running backs aging faster due to the physicality they are subjected to at the position, once again, you have to remove McCaffrey from the built-in stereotypes of the position.

He is not a player who you have to force-feed touches in the backfield to impact the game significantly. It’s very feasible to see him age gracefully into a role that has him somewhere in between a traditional back and a slot receiver. A moveable chess piece that allows Kyle Shanahan to pick and choose which matchup to exploit in a given game.

You pay the best players on your football team. This dialogue surrounding positional value has gone so far overboard that it has caused many to overlook the most fundamental aspects of team building and roster construction. Good players are good, no matter where they line up on the field.

That includes running backs, who, unfortunately, have been caught in the crossfire of this revolution of thinking that has all but erased the immense value a player like McCaffrey brings. Thankfully, in the case of the 49ers, that does not appear to be an issue for Shanahan and the brain trust, who have made it clear McCaffrey will be a part of their plans for years to come, no matter what his cap hit looks like.