SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- In the opening days of organized team activities, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan didn't want to rush his team back. After all, the Niners had made another deep playoff run, and though teams can't have padded practices in OTAs, Shanahan wanted to truly ease his squad back into on-field action.
So when the 49ers lined up for their first set of 11-on-11 work, they did so without pads and helmets. It's hard to glean much from what amounts to a glorified walk-through, but there was one player who was impossible to miss: running back Christian McCaffrey.
For those watching McCaffrey, it was difficult to tell whether it was a May 23 OTA or a late-season NFC West matchup. He was engaged in every step of the practice, ripping off runs at full speed and eagerly attacking every drill.
"He sets the standard," quarterback Trey Lance said. "He's quickly grown into a great leader in our locker room, and I think a lot of guys had a feeling that that would happen pretty quickly just based on who he is."
It might be difficult to measure McCaffrey's impact on San Francisco's locker room after he arrived in a trade with the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 21, but there's no denying his on-field performance made him one of the most impactful in-season acquisitions in recent NFL history.
Before McCaffrey stepped into the starting lineup in Week 8, the Niners ranked 20th in the NFL in points per game (20.7), 13th in yards per game (355) and 18th in expected points added (minus-0.04). San Francisco went 3-4 in that span.
Including the postseason, they ranked third (28.6), seventh (362.5) and third (6.8) in those categories, respectively, after McCaffrey took over as the starter. The Niners went 12-1, falling to the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC Championship Game.
Despite that production, the 49ers and McCaffrey believe there are plenty of ways to elevate his game -- and by extension the entire offense -- to another level in his first full season as a Niner. While McCaffrey has always participated fully in the offseason program, most of which is not mandatory and avoided by many star players, there was never a doubt that he would attend every part of it.
"I'm just trying to learn as much as possible," McCaffrey said. "It's nice to be able to start from square one and getting right with [running backs] coach [Bobby] Turner and making sure it's not just learning the plays but learning every single detail of the positions."
That represents a far cry from the crash course McCaffrey took before stepping onto the field against the Kansas City Chiefs less than 48 hours after he arrived in San Francisco. From there, McCaffrey was able to learn a little more each week, but most of it was game-plan specific. Which means this offseason is his first chance to dive deep into the finer details of Shanahan's offense.
It's something McCaffrey, who has played games for five offensive playcallers in six NFL seasons, is not taking for granted.
"In Carolina, we always had different coaches coming ..." McCaffrey said. "So, I was always learning the plays."
All of which begs the question: How much further can McCaffrey go with a full offseason in Shanahan's system under his belt?
McCaffrey's history suggests there's still plenty of ways for him to raise his game. Only once in his career has he been healthy for a full season and worked with the same playcaller as the previous year. That was in 2019, when Norv Turner got a second season calling plays for the Panthers. That was McCaffrey's best year, as he posted 2,392 yards from scrimmage and 19 touchdowns in 16 games. That followed a 2018 season in which he rang up 1,965 scrimmage yards and 13 touchdowns in 16 games.
In 13 games as San Francisco's starting running back last season, McCaffrey averaged 111.3 scrimmage yards per game (72.8 rushing and 38.5 receiving) while scoring a combined 13 touchdowns on 19.5 touches per game. Extrapolated over the course of a 17-game season, that comes out to 1,892 scrimmage yards and 17 touchdowns, in line with his 2018 production.
On a team that also boasts talented skill position players such as receivers Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, tight end George Kittle, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and running back Elijah Mitchell, it was McCaffrey who evolved into the Niners' top option over the final half of the season and into the playoffs. That talented cast should offer McCaffrey continued opportunities to make big plays, but it also means he's unlikely to get back to a workload similar to the 25.2 touches per game he had in 2019.
More likely, the Niners will look to manage McCaffrey's health; he played a combined 10 games in 2020 and 2021 because of ankle, shoulder, thigh and hamstring injuries and had to limit his practice participation at the end of last season because of a knee issue -- while working in fellow backs Mitchell and Jordan Mason. That means McCaffrey could end up closer to the 20.4 touches he averaged in 2018, which, if he can stay healthy, would probably push him toward 2,000 scrimmage yards.
Such a season would come as no surprise to Niners quarterback Sam Darnold, who played with McCaffrey in Carolina and has seen the results of his offseason approach in person.
"I'm used to it," Darnold said. "It's just his work ethic, that's never going to change. ... He's just got a great work ethic and I think guys respond to that really well and it kind of pushes the guys around him."