Sakamoto: Shanahan on Christian McCaffrey: “It limits what a defense can do.”

McCaffrey provides X-Factor element

The x-factor in the upcoming game will be none other than Carolina Panthers first-round pick (No. 8) RB Christian McCaffrey. Checking in at 5-11, 202, at the NFL scouting combine, McCaffrey will undoubtedly be the wild card as he faces the San Francisco 49ers. 

The Niners are transitioning to a traditional 4-3 front under the guidance of DC Robert Saleh. It will be up to the new defensive coordinator to devise a scheme to contain McCaffrey. A task easier said than done, even HC Kyle Shanahan admitted it won’t be easy.

Shanahan on McCaffrey:

In our Wednesday presser, Shanahan gave us some insight on the Panthers shining new running back.

“He can do everything. So it’s just how do you treat him? He’s a good running back. He can run outside. He can run inside. He’s good at screens. He’s good at routes out of the backfield. You can motion him out wide and use him as a wide receiver. He’s developed in those routes too.

He causes a lot of issues in some man-to-man situations. You just don’t know what you’re going to get. When a guy can be everywhere and he’s versatile it limits what a defense can do, some of the situations that he can put you in,” Shanahan said. 

McCaffrey will test 49ers Defensive IQ 

I wrote an article earlier on why I believe WR Kelvin Benjamin will go off on Sunday. In the article, I touch on McCaffrey’s ability to stretch the field horizontally. You can read that here. Aside from that, McCaffrey adds a dimension to the team’s offense that will surely test the 49ers defense from a mental standpoint. 

McCaffrey is not your traditional workhorse running back. He’s not a one trick pony or north-south bruiser between the tackles. When I think of McCaffrey, I think RB Darren Sproles. I must be crazy right? Sproles is 5-6, 190, horrible comparison. Think again.

McCaffrey skill set is similar to Darren Sproles 

In 2011, Sproles racked up 1,313 yards of total offense (603 rushing and 710 receiving). In addition, Sproles accounted for 9 total touchdowns (special-teams omitted). I see a very similar skill set in McCaffrey. He’s elusive, quick, and explosive. Just like Sproles, you can line him up in the backfield, spread him out wide in the slot, or use him as a special-teams returner. 

The options are endless. These 49ers will need to account for every possibility.

San Francisco 49ers draft pick Reuben Foster answers questions at a news conference in Santa Clara, Calif., Friday, April 28, 2017. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

For this reason, I believe Coach Saleh will devise a scheme for his linebackers to ‘stay at home.’ What that means is the linebackers will play drop-spot zone coverage. Under this scheme, the linebackers will guard an area (zone) instead of the nearest man (man-zone)

In turn, it will help ease the linebackers responsibility, as no linebacker on this team can cover McCaffrey one-on-one. Why? Because McCaffrey’s lateral agility is too good–evident by his 6.57 second 3-cone drill. Nonetheless, the 49ers will need to keep a close eye on McCaffrey at all times.

The zone read option is the Panthers bread-and-butter. McCaffrey will get his fair share of touches from this formation. The problem comes down to broken plays. When Panthers QB Cam Newton rolls outside the pocket he’s dangerous. If the 49ers front seven is unable to knockdown Newton consistently when pressured, McCaffrey could have a big game simply off of broken plays. 

When McCaffrey takes the field this Sunday, he will be arguably the most dangerous player with the ball in his hands. That spells trouble for the 49ers defense. 

Predicted stat line: Three catches for 37 yards/12 carries for 72 yards and 1 touchdown. 

Ryan is the Founder/CEO of, 49ers Beat Writer, Live Game Day Correspondent for Bleacher Report and member of Pro Football Writers of America. Born and raised in San Jose, he also graduated from San Diego State University. His work has been featured on NFL Network, 95.7 The Game, National Football Post, Sports Illustrated, FanSided Network, ESPN Radio, CBS Sports 810, and NBC Bay Area News. For more information, please contact him via email at or call him at (408) 622-0996.