Lombardi: My thoughts on the McCaffrey deal, NFL power ratings and Week 7 preview

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On the field or off, there is always a defining moment for every NFL team.  Sometimes it happens in the offseason, and sometimes during the season.  Sometimes the moment impacts negatively, (many examples here, from the Browns to the Broncos) and some positively.  When the Panthers traded Christian McCaffrey to the 49ers on Thursday night for second-, third- and fourth round picks in 2023 and a fifth in 2025, they had another defining moment in the Kyle Shanahan era.  The positive and negative will be in full force — for both teams. 

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On the surface, this deal seems more like a salary dump then a rebuilding effort.  However, with McCaffrey’s injury history, his salary for next season at $12 million and his constant place on the weekly injury report, the Panthers probably had little interest from other teams wanting to part with a first-round pick, along with other assets.   The 49ers, sensing the moment, decided to copy the Rams' blueprint, give away picks to challenge the best of the NFC for a Super Bowl run.  By adding McCaffrey, the 49ers will have the middle of the field in complete control, assuming all their star players (including McCaffrey) can stay healthy.  With tight end George Kittle, receiver Deebo Samuel and now McCaffrey, San Francisco will have three players that can win one-on-one matchups in the part of the field that quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and head coach Kyle Shanahan love to attack.  Currently the 49ers are 15th in the NFL in third down offense, but that number will be rising quickly.  Yes, McCaffrey can run the ball effectively in the 49ers zone scheme, which has been his best runs over his career, but this move is more than just getting a good back.  This move gives San Francisco an offensive weapon in both the run and passing game.  It will allow them to gain control of the game in two phases — offense and defense. 

On paper before this move, the 49ers on paper were a legitimate Super Bowl-winning team because of their elite defense.  Over the last few weeks, we have scratched players off the paper due to injuries, making the 3-3 49ers vulnerable.  For the Niners to make this work, this season, they need McCaffrey along with their other star players to not just be on paper, but also on the field.  This time next season, the 49ers probably won’t have DeMeco Ryans running their defense as he will get a head coaching job.  They won’t have Garoppolo at quarterback or several other players.  Their moment was now — and making this move makes them even better, on paper. 

The 49ers now have the type of team that can beat anyone, anywhere.  They have two games, one at home against the Chiefs this weekend and then on the road in Los Angeles against the Rams, then their bye.  Can they win the next two games?  If healthy, yes.  Can they win the next nine after the break?  For sure, if healthy.  Before betting the Niners, you must analyze the injury report in detail because you only want to bet on the 49ers when the paper and the field are one in the same. 

I didn’t think the Panthers would trade McCaffrey because it would send a message to the coaches the players and fans that they are tanking for the season.  Trading their best offensive player for a few low mid-round picks and taking on the enormous salary cap hit from his contract, now we all know the future in Carolina is being planned.  Between McCaffrey and the since departed Robbie Anderson, the Panthers will lead the league in dead money in 2023, with $28.5 million.  Even with McCaffrey, they struggled to move the ball offensively; without him, they will struggle as well.  And the Panthers are used to not having McCaffrey.  Since extending his rookie contract, the Panthers paid McCaffrey $38 million for a total of 16 games played.  As bad as losing McCaffrey appears, the Panthers have been here before. 

Do the picks help Carolina achieve their goal of acquiring a blue-chip quarterback?  No, but they are now the favorite to be the worst team in the league, not because of talent, but because of their situation.  It’s not easy to be a player, or coach on a staff that knows a new regime is coming in and still have 11 games to play this season.  Climbing Mount Everest might be easier than the dealing with the remaining 12 weeks.  The line against the Bucs, went from %plussign% 11 to %plussign% 13 with this news and it would not surprise me if it moved to %plussign% 14 before the ball gets kicked off.   

As bettors we should know the book will institute a tax on the Panthers moving forward.  Sensing the tanking along with the lack of skill talent, Carolina will be a hard team for all to handicap.  And even as the number rises, it will be hard for the Panthers to cover. 

For all that looks bleak for Carolina right now, Its future is still about two things:  Finding the right head coach to lead the rebuild and finding a quarterback. In the NFL the margin for error is so small — if Cleveland Browns kicker Cade York misses that 58-yard field goal on opening weekend then Matt Rhule is still coaching the Panthers and McCaffrey is still on the team.  But we all know as bettors, the “if” never cashes at the window and life moves on. 

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