NFL teams have until Nov. 1 to swing in-season trades, but it appears the major prize has already come off the board.
Thursday night, the regressing and rebooting Carolina Panthers agreed to ship former All-Pro running back Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers for a package of picks – including a second-, third- and fourth-rounder in next year’s draft.
The transaction will become official pending a physical for McCaffrey, who will return to the Bay Area football scene where he starred for Stanford from 2014 through 2016.
The aftershocks from this move could be seismic as we assess the potential winners and losers:
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McCaffrey: The oft-injured 26-year-old seems to be back in peak form after missing 23 games combined between the 2020 and ’21 seasons with ankle, shoulder and hamstring injuries. His 670 yards from scrimmage entering Week 7 rank fourth in the league, while his 33 receptions trail only the Chargers’ Austin Ekeler among running backs. The dual threat abilities of “CMc” were on full display Sunday against the Rams, when he rushed for 69 yards and caught seven passes for 89 more – the 24th time in McCaffrey’s six-year career that he posted both 50 yards rushing and receiving in the same game. Only Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk (41) has done that more times in the NFL’s 103-season existence. Three years ago, McCaffrey joined Roger Craig and Faulk as the only players to gain both 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in the same year on his way to a league-high 19 touchdowns and 2,392 yards from scrimmage (third most in one season in NFL history). But all that estimable ability was going to waste in Carolina, where the Panthers sport a league-worst 1-5 record and fired head coach Matt Rhule five games into his third season.
Now, McCaffrey could be the final piece to a Super Bowl puzzle for the Niners, who came up just short in Super Bowl 54 following the 2019 campaign and let the NFC championship game slip away to the Rams in January. And this is hardly a one-year rental as McCaffrey – the $16 million per-year average of his current deal is the most lucrative at his position – is under contract through the 2025 season.
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Kyle Shanahan: San Francisco’s uber-creative coach and play caller, whose offense is predicated on establishing the run, inherits the greatest backfield weapon he’s ever had. Since he took the reins in 2017, Shanahan has relied on a mishmash of runners like Carlos Hyde, Matt Breida, Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson and Elijah Mitchell. And a team that hasn’t invested much of its cap at the running back position is only on the hook for $690,000 this year – the remainder of McCaffrey’s 2022 base salary (he’ll be due at least $12 million annually in the following three seasons). But what a weapon he’ll be, mixed into an arsenal that includes WR Deebo Samuel and TE George Kittle while having the opportunity to run behind soon-to-return All-Pro Trent Williams, probably the league’s premier left tackle. The 49ers rank a middling 12th running the ball to this point, hampered by the knee injury Mitchell suffered in Week 1, and place 18th in total offense. Expect those figures to go way up.
Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance: Jimmy G., San Francisco’s current quarterback, will benefit from one more major weapon who will make the Niners’ play-action attack even more potent. McCaffrey should also immediately become a needed safety valve for Garoppolo as none of the team’s backs currently has more than eight receptions. As for Lance, lost in Week 2 to a season-ending broken ankle, his supporting cast for 2023 now looks much stronger and more capable of reducing pressure on him when he once again attempts to take over as the franchise passer he’s expected to be after being drafted third overall in 2021.
Deebo Samuel: The 2021 All-Pro dubbed himself a “wide back” last season due to his heavy involvement in the ground game. (Samuel, a wide receiver by trade, rushed for 365 yards and eight TDs last season.) Expect Shanahan to continue deploying Samuel in non-traditional ways that get the ball into his hands, but CMc’s presence should scale down the amount of times Samuel is asked to line up behind Garoppolo and run between the tackles.
Panthers in 2023: When Monday dawned, they had all of five picks for next year’s draft. But in the span of four days, general manager Scott Fitterer traded disgruntled WR Robbie Anderson to the Cardinals before pulling off the McCaffrey deal late Thursday night. Several reports early in the week suggested the Panthers were looking for multiple first-rounders for McCaffrey, and they obviously didn’t come close to fulfilling that. Still, this team does have several talented, young players at key positions – LT Ickey Ekwonu, CB Jaycee Horn, DE Brian Burns and DT Derrick Brown are all on rookie contracts – and now has the draft capital to further flesh out the roster for the next coach, whether that be amassing more talent or building a package to obtain the quarterback of the future … who almost certainly doesn’t reside in Charlotte at this point. And the way things seem to be headed, the Panthers might be picking first in next spring’s draft.
Panthers in 2022: A bad team, operating with an interim coach (Steve Wilks) and a revolving door at quarterback, has all but thrown in the towel on this season. Sure, maybe Wilks and Fitterer can identify other players who might be part of this franchise’s long-term plan – but they might be doing it in a Bank of America Stadium environment that was already lacking folks wearing black and teal jerseys.
Remainder of the NFC: The Cardinals’ win over the Saints on Thursday night means all four teams in the NFC West have three wins. But the 49ers’ acquisition of McCaffrey and the presumption several of their key players will get healthy – and at a time when the Rams have been ravaged by injuries, especially on the O-line – would seem to make San Francisco the prohibitive favorite to win the division. Not only that, the Niners now project as an even more serious threat to return to the Super Bowl given the rampant issues most teams in the conference seem to be experiencing, the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles notwithstanding.
Mitchell and Wilson: All of a sudden, not nearly so many touches available for the 49ers’ other backs. Wilson, scheduled to be a free agent after the season, had flashed in Mitchell’s absence but also had trouble holding on to the ball. His opportunity to be what passes as a featured back in Shanahan’s scheme now ends. Also worth wondering if Mitchell, who’s scheduled to return later this season, is long for San Francisco given the likelihood McCaffrey will be here for some time.
Buffalo Bills: Can you imagine if a team clearly built to win the Super Bowl had finally buttressed its run game with McCaffrey? GM Brandon Beane worked for Carolina when CMc was selected eighth overall in the 2017 draft but clearly wasn’t ready to ante up for him a second time.
Kansas City Chiefs: Can you imagine if the team that’s represented the AFC in two of the past three Super Bowls but seems to be falling behind Buffalo in the conference’s arms race had leveled up with another multi-threat back for Andy Reid?
49ers’ 2023 draft: They’re not scheduled to pick before the fifth round, the 2021 deal with the Dolphins – it put them in position to take Lance – coming at the cost of next year’s Round 1 choice. Shanahan and GM John Lynch will come into possession of some compensatory third-round picks next year, but they’ll also surely have to rely heavily on free agency as it pertains to altering the roster.
Taylor Swift: Unless you believe NFL fans and Tay Tay are mutually exclusive – no way, bruh – the late-night move for McCaffrey surely stole some of the steam on the debut of her new album, “Midnights” – which was promoted by Swift herself during Amazon’s stream of the Cardinals-Saints game and was set to drop at midnight ET. Never release an album in close proximity to the NFL trade deadline, Taylor … rookie mistake by you.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.