The San Francisco 49ers, to the surprise of almost nobody, are off to a solid start this season. They have won both of their first two games by at least one touchdown, and they rank third in points scored, points allowed and rushing yards while ranking first in rushing touchdowns.
So far, their most productive player has been star running back Christian McCaffrey. He is tops in the NFL in rushing yards with 268 while also ranking third in yards per carry attempt.
At age 27, he is on top of his game, but the 49ers, who have a relatively young roster in some ways, should also think long-term with him and not ride him relentlessly.
He has played in 92 percent of their offensive snaps so far this year, and while he has been a workhorse, there has been a perpetual concern surrounding him. Because of this concern, San Francisco must find a way to preserve him and keep him fresh.
McCaffrey has a history of being injury-prone
In 2019, McCaffrey, who was the No. 8 pick in the 2017 draft, became just the third player to ever amass 1,000 receiving and rushing yards in the same season, joining Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk and former Niners star Roger Craig.
Ever since the Niners acquired him in a midseason trade last year, he has transformed their offense from a mediocre one to one that is simply scary.
But ever since that historic 2019 campaign, he has had trouble staying healthy.
He played in just three games the following year due to a sprained ankle and later a shoulder injury. In 2021, he again hurt his ankle and also sustained a hamstring ailment, limiting him to seven contests.
In 2022, he appeared in all 17 regular season games, but given his history and the violent hits running backs in general take on a regular basis, San Francisco needs to reduce his workload just a bit with the playoffs and the next few years in mind. Luckily, it has a very good player behind him on the depth chart who can make that happen.
Enter Elijah Mitchell.
It’s time for Mitchell to get the ball more
Although Mitchell himself has been plagued by injuries so far in his NFL career, he has proven to be a potent running back when healthy. In his first two seasons with the 49ers, the former sixth-round pick in 2021 put together 1,242 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground while averaging 4.9 yards per carry in 16 games.
Right now, he is healthy, but he has gotten only five carries this year, and he didn’t even get onto the field at all in Sunday’s 30-23 win over the Los Angeles Rams.
This is the time for Mitchell to carry a reasonable portion of the Niners’ offensive load while their schedule is still relatively easy. Christian McCaffrey could use that type of respite, as they will face the Dallas Cowboys, who have the league’s No. 1 scoring defense and are first in rushing touchdowns allowed, in Week 5.
After that, head coach Kyle Shanahan’s crew will play the Cleveland Browns, who are also a tough defensive team, the Minnesota Vikings, the Cincinnati Bengals and the Jacksonville Jaguars with only a Week 9 bye in between those contests.
After playing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 11, the gauntlet will continue for San Francisco when it faces the Seattle Seahawks twice and the defending NFC champion Philadelphia Eagles on the road once over the following three weeks. The first game versus Seattle will take place in Seattle on a Thursday, which means a short rest beforehand.
The 49ers have been hit hard by the injury bug over the last three seasons and four out of the last five campaigns. There is no reason for Shanahan to wear out someone such as Christian McCaffrey, especially so early in the season.