Super Bowl 2024: How Christian McCaffrey's contract helped push 49ers to the brink of a championship

The Christian McCaffrey trade from the Carolina Panthers was a steal for the San Francisco 49ers, and not just because they got one of the best running backs of this generation.

McCaffrey's contract might be the most valuable in the NFL among non-rookie deals for this season — it's not that bad in future seasons either — and that's also part of the story behind the trade. Put it this way: The Buffalo Bills' cap hit for Nyheim Hines this season is higher than the 49ers' hit for McCaffrey.

McCaffrey, an MVP finalist, has a cap hit of just $3.424 million. That cap hit ranks 18th among running backs for the 2023 season, according to Spotrac, right behind Hines and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Pretty good for a player who led the NFL with 2,023 yards from scrimmage and 21 total touchdowns.

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How did the 49ers get a veteran MVP candidate on a contract that has a cap hit ranking 14th on his own team, behind backup quarterback Sam Darnold? It's partially the NFL's salary cap rules, which allowed for a valuable restructure that didn't mortgage the team's future.

San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey celebrates after his team's win against the Detroit Lions in the NFC championship game. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey celebrates after his team's win against the Detroit Lions in the NFC championship game. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Christian McCaffrey's deal is great for 49ers

The 49ers traded for McCaffrey last season, two years after McCaffrey signed a four-year, $64 million deal with the Carolina Panthers. That Panthers deal included a $21.5 million signing bonus. The Panthers had to account for that in the trade because when a team cuts or trades a player, the remainder of the signing bonus accelerates onto its cap. Carolina had an $18.35 million dead cap hit for McCaffrey on this season's cap, which is about five times San Francisco's cap hit for the star running back.

McCaffrey's total cap hit for this season was $21,776,250, but 84.3% of that cap hit was loaded on a team that McCaffrey didn't even play for.

That allowed the 49ers to do a fairly common restructure with McCaffrey, without pushing too much money to their salary cap in future years.

McCaffrey converted $10.72 million of his 2023 base salary into a signing bonus, adding two void years to the end of the contract. Signing bonuses are spread out over the length of an NFL contract. That cleared $8.576 million of cap space for the 49ers, according to NBC Sports Bay Area.

“It just gives us some room,” 49ers general manager John Lynch said last April, via NBC Sports Bay Area. “We were pressed right up there when we were to sign our rookies.

“We wanted to have some flexibility and it made sense. Christian’s going to be here, simple conversion, and we did it, and we’re thankful to Christian for agreeing to do it. Good thing for him. Good thing for us.”

McCaffrey's cap hits rise to more than $14 million each of the next two years and there will be a little more than $6 million in a dead cap hit to worry about when the void years hit, but overall it's a fantastic deal for the 49ers for this season. A $14 million cap hit for one of the best non-quarterbacks in football is certainly reasonable. McCaffrey has base salaries of $11.8 million in 2024 and $12 million in 2025.

McCaffrey didn't have to take a pay cut and the 49ers had just 1.4% of their salary cap tied up in one of the best players in the NFL. That's a huge win-win.

Other good 49ers and Chiefs deals

McCaffrey's small cap hit is one of the many reasons the 49ers are going to the Super Bowl. When you have a salary cap, you can't pay everyone like they're a superstar. You pay your stars and then need to hit on some value contracts elsewhere on the roster. That's why players on their rookie deals, particularly quarterbacks, are so valuable.

When a star like McCaffrey has a value contract, it's a boon. Here are four of the other best non-rookie contracts (so you won't see Brock Purdy and his $889,252 cap hit here) on the books of the 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs, who will meet in Super Bowl LVIII:

• 49ers linebacker Dre Greenlaw; 2 years, $16.4 million: The 49ers signed Greenlaw when he was still unproven, coming off his rookie deal. He became a full-time starter and has been fantastic for the two years of his deal, with 247 tackles over two seasons.

• Chiefs linebacker Drue Tranquill; 1 year, $3 million: Tranquill is the sort of do-everything defender that is great for creative defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. He played 16 games, starting eight, and had 4.5 sacks and 78 tackles. The Chiefs got their $3 million worth from Tranquill.

• 49ers safety Tashaun Gipson Sr.; 1 year, $2.9 million: Gipson was a perfect veteran signing. He isn't commanding long-term deals or big money, so the 49ers got him cheap. At age 33, Gipson started 16 games and was Pro Football Focus' 24th-ranked safety in its grades. That's great value.

• Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes; 10 years, $450 million: Yes, it's a lot of money. And it's still behind other top quarterbacks, and Mahomes' deal will continue to age very well. Mahomes could have held his ground for more money but didn't in order to help the team's flexibility in the future. Taking $450 million isn't exactly a charity case, but it's arguable Mahomes is worth much, much more than he's getting paid per season. There might be no more valuable player in all of sports right now.