After he signed a contract before the 2020 season that made him the league’s highest-paid running back, Christian McCaffrey missed 23 of 33 games over the next two seasons.
He had hamstring and ankle injuries in 2021 that twice landed him on injured reserve.
The 49ers saw enough the first six games of this season from McCaffrey with Carolina to make a season-saving trade on Oct. 20. San Francisco gave up second-, third- and fourth-round selections in 2023 and a fifth-round selection in 2024 to Carolina for McCaffrey.
The trade signaled “that we weren’t playing around,” 49ers Brandon Aiyuk said this week.
McCaffrey arguably saved the 49ers’ season with starting quarterback Trey Lance missing 15 games, backup quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo going out in Week 13 and wide back Deebo Samuel sidelined four games. Rookie quarterback Brock Purdy, who earned PFT’s offensive rookie of the year award, went 5-0 as a starter with a lot of help from his friends, including McCaffrey.
McCaffrey played all 17 games, the first full season he has had since 2019, and has earned PFT’s comeback player of the year award.
He rushed for 1,139 yards and eight touchdowns on 244 carries and caught 85 passes for 741 yards and five touchdowns this season, with most of that coming with the 49ers.
Several other players also had impressive comebacks this season.
Titans running back Derrick Henry returned from a foot injury that kept him out nine games in 2021 to rush for 1,538 yards and 13 touchdowns; Giants running back Saquon Barkley missed 21 games the past three seasons, including four with an ankle injury in 2021, but rebounded with 1,312 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns this season; Commanders running back Brian Robinson underwent surgery for non-life-threatening injuries after being shot by attempted robbers on Aug. 28 in Washington, D.C., but the rookie played 12 games and gained 857 yards from scrimmage and scored three touchdowns; and Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith became a full-time starter for the first time since 2014 and earned Pro Bowl honors for the first time while leading Seattle to the postseason.