Panthers’ trade of Christian McCaffrey to 49ers produces two winners — and a loser

The news broke just before midnight on Thursday. The Carolina Panthers had traded Christian McCaffrey to the San Francisco 49ers, getting four draft picks in return.

This means that in the short term the Panthers will become even more unwatchable. In the long term, it means that the team has gone into full tear-it-down-and-rebuild-it mode — again.

Immediate printing? This trade feels like a win-win to me, and the Panthers have to take any win they can get these days.

Carolina didn’t get the first-round pick it wanted for McCaffrey, despite talking to several teams about his availability. But it did wrest a second, third and fourth-rounder in 2023 from the 49ers, as well as a fifth-rounder from San Francisco in 2024. So that’s good for Carolina.

And McCaffrey, 26, who played on a playoff team in 2017 as a rookie at Carolina but never has played on a decent one since, gets a chance to make a difference for a stacked 49ers squad that has legitimate Super Bowl aspirations. So McCaffrey and the Panthers both got a victory Thursday night.

And here’s another important thing: We all know that as great a player as McCaffrey is — and in 2019, he had one of the best seasons any running back in any era has ever had, with 1387 yards rushing and 1005 yards receiving — there’s an expiration date on how long he’s going to stay healthy. It helped his trade value considerably that he’s played in six out of six games this season and has shown himself once again to be the Panthers’ leading — and often their only — weapon on offense. McCaffrey is currently fourth in the NFL in yards from scrimmage with 670 in six games, trailing only Saquon Barkley, Tyreek Hill and Nick Chubb.

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) scores a touchdown over Arizona Cardinals linebacker Zaven Collins (25) during a game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC, Sunday, Oct. 2, 2022.

But this is the same McCaffrey who sustained four separate injuries in 2020 and 2021, which meant he played in only 10 of a possible 33 games. McCaffrey is a fantastic player, but Carolina is losing anyway, and they need a quantity of good players right now more than they need a single great but injury-prone one. The 49ers are willing to take the risk because they’re trying to win at this very minute. But make no mistake, it’s a big risk. It’s hard to say if the 49ers actually “won” anything Thursday night; time will tell for them.

Now the 2023 NFL draft takes on even more importance for the Panthers (1-5), who might have the No. 1 overall pick in it — if they can just keep losing — and can add these three CMC-generated picks to the pile . Trading McCaffrey, of course, makes the Panthers’ path to the No. 1 pick a little easier — they can try as hard as they want to, without ever tanking, and still they’re going to be so talent-deficient that they’ re going to lose almost all of their games.

Who do I feel sorry for in all this? Interim head coach Steve Wilks. He’s the loser in this trade, and I can’t imagine he’s happy about it.

Wilks is the Charlotte product trying hard to do a good enough job after replacing Matt Rhule earlier this month to impress David Tepper and get the job permanently. But the Panthers just traded his best player out from under him, three days after trading their fastest receiver, too. Wilks is the one getting the short end of the stick here. His chances of getting the permanent job just diminished, because his talent pool just diminished.

Now Carolina will go into the home game against Tampa Bay Sunday with former fourth-stringer PJ Walker at quarterback, D’Onta Foreman as the No. 1 running back and God knows who catching the ball other than DJ Moore. If Carolina scores more than 10 points Sunday, it will be a minor miracle. If Carolina goes better than 3-14 this season, it will be a minor miracle.

But really that doesn’t matter much. This season has “bust” written all over it, and that wasn’t changing whether McCaffrey was here or not.

Now he won’t be. Sorry about that No. 22 jersey in your closet, but you were able to wear it for six years.

McCaffrey deserves an opportunity to play with a better team — one that whipped Carolina 37-15 only 11 days before the trade, with McCaffrey scoring Carolina’s lone TD on a 19-yard run. And the Panthers deserve a shot at strengthening the roster in a bunch of different places.

Both sides get their way with this. But poor Wilks — the Panthers did their interim coach no favors with this one.

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