Nick Wagoner, ESPN Staff WriterSep 21, 2023, 06:25 AM ET
CloseNick Wagoner is an NFL reporter at ESPN. Nick has covered the San Francisco 49ers and the NFL at ESPN since 2016, having previously covered the St. Louis Rams for 12 years, including three years (2013 to 2015) at ESPN. In his 10 years with the company, Nick has led ESPN’s coverage of the Niners’ 2019 Super Bowl run, Colin Kaepernick’s protest, the Rams making Michael Sam the first openly gay player drafted to the NFL, Sam’s subsequent pursuit of a roster spot and the team’s relocation and stadium saga. You can follow Nick via Twitter @nwagoner
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Long before signing bonuses, guarantees and the future of his position became hot-button issues, San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey’s football pursuits were far simpler.
As a 7-year-old playing his first season of organized football for the Hawks in Parker, Colorado, McCaffrey tugged on his No. 26 jersey, surveyed the scene and quickly concluded there was only one position he wanted to play.
“I remember in little league, the running back got the ball every play because when you’re 7- and 8-years old, there’s not a lot of passing going on,” McCaffrey said. “And I loved the idea of scoring touchdowns.”
Five years after Le’Veon Bell declined to sign the franchise tag tender and held out for an entire season because the Pittsburgh Steelers declined to reward his dual-threat skills with the lucrative contract he sought, the declining value of running backs is again at the forefront of NFL discourse.
This offseason, running backs Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs settled for one-year franchise tag deals from the New York Giants and Las Vegas Raiders, respectively, Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler tried and failed to get a raise, and the Indianapolis Colts and running back Jonathan Taylor remain in a standoff.
The fallout of those contract impasses ran so deep that a group of top running backs, including McCaffrey, Barkley, Jacobs, Ekeler and the Cleveland Browns’ Nick Chubb, gathered via Zoom in July to discuss ways they can jumpstart the position’s market. But, as Chubb said at the time, “Right now, there’s really nothing we can do.”
Even the backs expected to pave the way to bigger paydays aren’t immune to the issue teams cite to not pay them: injuries.
With Week 3 of the season starting when the 49ers host the Giants on Thursday at Levi’s Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video) — and Barkley, Ekeler and Chubb out due to injuries — the one thing running backs can control is how they perform on the field. In an increasingly positionless league, McCaffrey’s ability to get his hands on the ball and score from anywhere offers the blueprint for other running backs to follow.
As one of three players in league history to post 1,000 rushing and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season, McCaffrey did what Bell couldn’t, becoming the highest-paid running back in 2020, a deal that still tops the market for the position at an average of $16.02 million per year.
It might also be the ticket for the next wave of running backs to NFL success and a payday that meets or exceeds McCaffrey’s.
“They say running backs are replaceable because we’re just running the ball and stuff,” Detroit Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs, the No. 12 pick in the 2023 draft, said last week. “The difference is with some backs being able to catch the ball and run their routes out of the slot or on the outside. I think that plays a big role in how teams value you and you see that some backs aren’t getting paid as much but you see the backs that are, they are versatile. They do anything for the team.”
IN JULY 1997, Detroit Lions running back Barry Sanders became the highest-paid player in the NFL, agreeing to a contract extension that would pay him nearly $5.8 million per season.
Entering the 2023 season, McCaffrey’s salary is the highest average at his position, but 112 players make more on an annual basis, including six (defensive end Nick Bosa, tackle Trent Williams, linebacker Fred Warner, defensive tackles Arik Armstead and Javon Hargrave and receiver Deebo Samuel) on his own team.
Despite that, McCaffrey, whom the Niners acquired in Oct. 2022 from the Carolina Panthers for second, third and fourth-round picks in 2023 and a fifth-round choice in 2024, is in the place that values running backs most.
Since coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch took over in 2017, the Niners have repeatedly invested draft capital, big dollars or a combination into the position.
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Under Shanahan and Lynch, the Niners have had a different running back lead the team in rushing every season. Those backs ranged from undrafted players such as Matt Breida and Raheem Mostert to early-round picks such as McCaffrey (first round, 2017) and Carlos Hyde (second round, 2014).
Over the past six seasons since Shanahan and Lynch took over, San Francisco ranks eighth in the NFL in rushing yards per game (125.35) and sixth in rushing touchdowns (106). The irony is while that production has offered evidence to other teams that running backs are replaceable, Shanahan hasn’t stopped looking for upgrades.
As he points out, his father Mike’s Denver Broncos didn’t get over the hump and win a Super Bowl until they found a transcendent back in Terrell Davis. Before Davis’ arrival, the Broncos had lost four Super Bowls as a franchise, including three in four seasons from 1986-89 in part because quarterback John Elway didn’t have a run game to complement his powerful right arm.
Davis solved that problem, rushing for a combined 6,413 yards from 1995-98 — including 2,008 en route to the Most Valuable Player award in 1998 — on his way to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“It’s really hard to win in this league without a good running game,” Shanahan said. “We’ve always committed to the run regardless of who’s back there. … I believe in always committing to it because that’s what makes a football team good. But when you have a difference maker back there, it’s a huge difference.”
Since 2017, the 49ers have drafted four running backs (Joe Williams, Elijah Mitchell, Trey Sermon and Tyrion Davis-Price), and all but Mitchell — the most successful of the bunch — were taken in the fourth round or earlier. In 2018, they signed running back Jerick McKinnon to a four-year, $30 million in hopes he could be the type of all-around back who could fill the role now occupied by McCaffrey. McKinnon tore the ACL in his right knee just before his first season, however, and never got fully healthy as a Niner, appearing in 16 games in three seasons before resurrecting his career with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Dating to 2003, a Shanahan-coached team has only had the same leading rusher in back-to-back seasons once (Alfred Morris in 2012-2013 with Washington).
Such is Shanahan’s devotion to running backs that, after the second night of this year’s draft, he poked fun at himself after using a third-round pick on a kicker, saying “I still can’t believe we didn’t take a running back.”
This time, there was no need, not with McCaffrey under contract through the 2025 season and back to full health after ankle, shoulder and hamstring injuries — the type of ailments that come standard with the position and have contributed to the running back market reaching a standstill — limited him to 10 total games in 2020 and 2021.
With McCaffrey and promising backups Mitchell, Jordan Mason and Davis-Price in place, the Niners made no substantial additions to the running back room.
“We’re fortunate,” Lynch said. “Could we play without our guy? I think we could. Do we want to? No. That’s why we paid so much to go get him.”
GROWING UP IN Colorado, McCaffrey had an obvious football mentor in his father, Ed, who played wide receiver for the Broncos under Mike Shanahan. McCaffrey learned from his father but also enjoyed watching his favorite running backs, including Davis, Sanders, Tomlinson and Marshall Faulk.
Davis was the local hero, flawlessly executing Denver’s wide zone run game while Sanders offered a masterclass in breaking ankles. In Tomlinson and Faulk, McCaffrey saw an intriguing mix of his father’s receiving abilities and Davis and Sanders’ rushing skills.
At the time, Faulk and Tomlinson were considered unicorns — each winning an MVP award on their way to finishing fifth and sixth, respectively, all time in yards from scrimmage and landing in the Hall of Fame — in a world of between-the-tackles backs like Jerome Bettis, Emmitt Smith and Eddie George.
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Much has changed since.
“Now, the running backs are those guys who have that ability to catch the ball out of the backfield,” said Bettis, who topped 30 receptions in a season once in his 13-year career. “Maybe in years past, they have played wide receiver, did those things. You’re starting to see them evolve into the running back position and now they have a much different skill set than they used to. So, you’re gonna start to see that more and more and more because that’s what the new running back looks like.”
The “new” running back looks a lot like McCaffrey, who is 5-foot-11, 210 pounds and ran a 4.48 40-yard dash at the 2017 NFL combine. More than the measurables, though, his adaptability and commitment to his craft have elevated him beyond simple positional tags.
Growing up, McCaffrey spent countless hours working with his dad and brothers on everything that went into playing wide receiver even though it wasn’t his position. McCaffrey did receiver workouts centered on all the intricacies of that position, getting in and out of breaks “on a dime” and applying those lessons to the moves he’d make as a running back.
When he arrived at Valor Christian High in suburban Denver, McCaffrey was used as a running back/defensive back/punter. He also played basketball and baseball and ran track.
“It was about being the best athlete,” McCaffrey said.
When opponents would load the run box with extra defenders to slow the run, McCaffrey moved to the slot or out wide and ran routes designed to beat man coverage.
Each week, he would learn a route tree specifically designed to attack that opponent. He’d run slants, goes, hitches and stop routes with his father emphasizing the importance of hitting the correct yardage marks, taking the right steps and ensuring proper timing.
When McCaffrey watched Faulk and Tomlinson, he wouldn’t take notes on specific things they did so much as log plays he could try to emulate.
Above all of that, McCaffrey has continued to pour himself into the fundamentals of the position. Shanahan’s offense can be daunting for offensive players because it requires them to absorb every last detail, no matter how small.
On any given play, McCaffrey has to know where the run is supposed to go, the track he’s supposed to take to get there, the timing of when he’s supposed to hit the hole and the spacing of where everyone else is supposed to be as he’s doing it.
“It’s a constant learning curve,” McCaffrey said. “You can’t get enough reps and you can lose it if you don’t rep it. You’re never not learning. You always have to continue to grow.”
It’s a valuable reminder, not only for running backs but about them.
IN MANY WAYS, Marcus Allen was ahead of his time. In an era of power runners, the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Allen regularly ranked among the league’s most proficient pass catchers out of the backfield. From 1983 to 1987, Allen averaged 59.2 receptions for 553.2 yards and 2.4 receiving scores.
In 2022, there were six running backs with at least 59 catches and four who exceeded Allen’s career-high of 68. Ekeler led the league with 107.
“I like to think that if I was playing today, I could still impact the game,” Allen said. “You’ve really gotta be a more versatile player than ever today. Never come off the field, be a third-down back, you gotta be able to catch the ball, gotta be able to throw it, gotta be able to block. And certainly, running the ball.”
It’s a challenge that doesn’t seem to be lost on the younger generation. Jahmyr Gibbs and Atlanta Falcons running back Bijan Robinson, who was the No. 8 pick in this year’s draft, became the first pair of running backs to go in the top 12 since Leonard Fournette and McCaffrey went No. 4 and No. 8, respectively, in 2017.
Gibbs said he first began to realize the importance of pass catching as a freshman at Georgia Tech when running backs coach Tashard Choice, who played seven NFL seasons at the position, pointed it out. From there, Gibbs began to more closely observe McCaffrey, Ekeler and New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara, a two-time All-Pro who reached 3,000 career rushing and 3,000 career receiving yards faster (66 games) than any player in history.
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When Gibbs arrived at the combine in March, he realized he and McCaffrey are almost the same size. That reinforced Gibbs’ belief that he’s not too small to play running back in the NFL.
Robinson prefers not to think too far into the future about the impact players like he and Gibbs can have on the value of the position but he acknowledges the ways they can help if they play well.
“For me, I’m just trying to stay where my feet are and understand that maybe one day, we can be the change,” Robinson said.
Fresh off the practice field in the middle of training camp, McCaffrey sits down for a 20-minute conversation about the evolution of his position. He smiles at the mention of Hall of Famers Bettis and Allen pointing to him as the model for other backs to follow. He repeatedly notes that his way is not the only way, too, endorsing Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry as a special player in his own right, even if he does his damage with a more powerful, bruising style.
Above all else, though, McCaffrey offers the reminder that a player’s value is ultimately up to the teams signing the checks. Which is why the only thing he and his fellow running backs can do is continue to raise their game to the point where their worth transcends their position.
“When you talk about value, it has to come from the team,” he said. “We all kind of have our own niche but that’s what makes the position so special and so valuable is how you can utilize their best players in different ways to win games.”
ESPN NFL Nation reporters Michael Rothstein and Eric Woodyard contributed to this story.