Christian McCaffrey

Where ESPN's Barnwell ranks 49ers' playmakers among NFL teams

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Year after year, it seems like the 49ers put forth one of the NFL's most potent rosters despite consistent uncertainty at the quarterback position.

But San Francisco's unique blend of elite playmakers in recent years has helped the team play in three of the NFL's last four NFC Championship Games -- and this coming season the 49ers will look to finally bring home their ever-elusive sixth Vince Lombardi Trophy.

So with offensive weapons like Christian McCaffrey, George Kittle and Deebo Samuel on the 49ers, where do they stand in comparison to the rest of the league? At the top, of course, as ESPN's Bill Barnwell wrote Monday in his team wide receiver, tight end and running back rankings for 2023, and McCaffrey is a big reason why:

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. Here's how that went:

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 percent 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 addition of McCaffrey, Barnwell notes how the 49ers can be better in 2023. Samuel himself told reporters at mandatory minicamp earlier this month that he was distracted by contract talk last offseason and felt disappointed in his 2022 performance, promising better things to come.

"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.)," Barnwell wrote. "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."

Barnwell described wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk's eight touchdowns and 1,015 yards in 2022 as "ho-hum," but believes Kittle's most recent campaign "reinforced his standing as one of the best receiving tight ends in football to go with all he does as a blocker."

With all of those options, it's hard to find a weakness in the 49ers' vast cast of playmakers -- though Barnwell does, noting several of San Francisco's pass-catchers have storied injury histories. But with Shanahan calling the shots on offense, things are a lot easier for everyone involved. Barnwell didn't factor the coach's expertise into his ranking of the 49ers' playmakers, however.

"It's fair to wonder what these players would all look like with, say, Matt Patricia calling plays," Barnwell said. "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 [Kyle] 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."

Barnwell argues that if they continue to make former Mr. Irrelevant Brock Purdy look like a franchise quarterback again in 2023, "it'll be hard to argue against the 49ers having the best playmakers in football.

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