John Lynch has done it again.
In winning the Christian McCaffrey Fire Sale Sweepstakes by landing arguably the NFL’s most versatile running back in a stunning trade with the Carolina Panthers on Thursday night, it certainly feels like the Hall of Fame safety-turned-shot-caller has pulled off another coup.
Remember, Lynch broke into his job as the San Francisco 49ers GM in 2017 by fleecing the Chicago Bears as he christened his first draft, getting a pair of third-round picks and a fourth-round selection to move back one slot at the top of the first round, to third overall.
Now Lynch has obtained a multi-faceted weapon for coach Kyle Shanahan to employ – and perhaps the missing piece to a Super Bowl formula – for a bushel of draft picks.
Sure, draft picks are precious. But truth is, you never know exactly how they’re going to pan out – and that goes for the coveted first-round picks to the throwaway sixth-rounders alike. To get McCaffrey, Lynch gave up second-, third- and fourth-round picks in 2023 and a fifth-round pick in 2024.
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Maybe those picks equate to Pro Bowl talent, maybe not.
It’s also significant that the stockpile of picks Lynch tapped was bolstered by their culture. Although each of the picks used in the McCaffrey trade were traditional draft choices, Lynch had a cushion of flexibility provided by compensatory picks received for the development of minority head coaches Robert Saleh (Jets) and Mike McDaniel (Dolphins) and for GM Martin Mayhew (Commanders), the bonus picks awarded as part of an NFL incentive plan to spark diversity of opportunities.
The 49ers have three third-round compensatory picks in 2023 that remain from the six picks awarded over a three-year span (2021-23) for the departures of Saleh, McDaniel and Mayhew. Without the extra picks in his stash, perhaps Lynch would have been less willing to deal away the picks that turned into McCaffrey.
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Other NFL teams, and particularly those with shoddy track records in providing opportunities for minorities, should take note: Doing the right thing by minority coaches and executives not only provides a benefit with a diversity of voices in key positions; the 49ers are showing it might impact the talent haul.
It’s fitting to link this to the franchise that once employed the late Bill Walsh, who back in the 1980s was way ahead of his time in providing opportunities for minority coaches (so much that the league has a key diversity fellowship named in his honor) while oh-by-the-way also building multiple Super Bowl winners.
Kudos to Lynch for shrewdly tapping into resources linked to his draft capital windfall – which should be increased next year if D-coordinator DeMeco Ryans moves on to become a head coach somewhere, as many in league circles insist should be the case.
There used to be a time when NFL teams couldn’t trade compensatory picks, which are typically awarded to counter players lost as free agents. But it’s an option now. The rule was changed in 2017 to allow no such restrictions on swapping compensatory picks.
The 49ers didn’t deal any compensatory picks to get McCaffrey, but the extra stash helped. Now the 49ers vision is tied to their hope that the former Stanford star can stay healthy during his Bay Area return.
Availability underscores the obvious risk with this trade. McCaffrey missed 23 games (and played in just 10 games) over the past two seasons. As one of the league’s highest-paid running backs, “McC” will cost $12 million in cap and actual dollars in each of the next three full seasons if his current contract remains intact – a whopping number when considering the traditional lack of premium pay for the running back market, given the wear and tear at the position.
Still, this might wind up as a win-win transaction. The Panthers, with GM Scott Fitterer and interim coach Steve Wilks trying to set the course for another rebuilding program after Matt Rhule flamed out, at least have a stockpile of picks to work with. On the other hand, the 49ers had picks to spare – and for the right reasons.
As it stands now, even after shipping three picks to Carolina, the 49ers would go into the 2023 draft still carrying eight draft picks. Lynch is hardly shy about stockpiling and swapping picks – last year, he dealt three picks, including two first-rounders, to move up to draft Trey Lance – as a normal part of business.
The big trade in 2017 resulted in a net gain. Solomon Thomas, the D-lineman who incidentally was a college teammate of McCaffrey’s, never blossomed into a star after being picked third overall by the 49ers. But neither did the quarterback the Bears took that year in the No. 2 slot, Mitchell Trubisky. The 49ers, though, did manage to draft a whale of a third-round linebacker in Fred Warner.
And now it’s striking that the equation for analyzing the trade of draft picks can include the rewards for diversity in developing coaches and executives.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jarrett Bell on Twitter @JarrettBell.