SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Organized team activities are mostly manufactured drama and the 49ers are no different.
Will Brock Purdy be ready for Week 1?
Can Trey Lance show enough to challenge Purdy until he’s ready?
Is Sam Darnold a darkhorse candidate to start Sept. 10 in Pittsburgh?
One thing was clear as the media got its first look Tuesday on Day 2 of OTAs — none of those quarterbacks are going anywhere near the 49ers’ desired destination without Christian McCaffrey.
Lots of players sat out, which is typical of voluntary OTAs. Nick Bosa, Deebo Samuel, Trent Williams and Javon Hargrave weren’t there. Fred Warner and Dre Greenlaw contributed with encouragement from the sideline. Cornerback Charvarius Ward and wide receiver Jauan Jennings worked with trainers on the sidelines.
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Yet there was McCaffrey, looking spry and explosive, whether taking handoffs in the non-contact drills or running pass routes. He was decisive, explosive and decidedly the most eye-popping skill position player on the field.
And no one was a close second. He was that good. Having seen players such as Darren McFadden with the Raiders dominate in non-padded workouts before, it’s a major reach to attach too much significance to OTAs.
Yet it’s clear that if the 49ers want to make it to the Super Bowl and win regardless of who emerges as the quarterback, McCaffrey will supply the jet stream.
The 49ers limited media contact to their there quarterbacks Tuesday, not that McCaffrey would have had a lot to say other than the usual.
McCaffrey’s focus on football is so intense Lance invoked the most fanatical of all 49ers when it comes to preparation of body, mind and soul.
“Some people call him like a little Bosa, just the way he’s so meticulous with his routine and how he takes care of his body,” Lance said.
The 49ers were a good team when McCaffrey arrived via trade Oct. 20 from the Carolina Panthers. He was an additional piece added to a good-but-not-great offense that had Deebo Samuel, George Kittle and Jimmy Garoppolo.
Hard to believe there were critics who thought the 49ers gave up too much with second, third-, fourth- and fifth-round picks to get him. As good as McCaffrey was — he rushed for 746 yards and caught 52 passes for 464 yards in 11 games — they’ll need even more from him in 2023.
McCaffrey is the centerpiece of the 49ers’ offense, a rarity for a running back in a quarterback-driven league. He’s their Steph Curry, capable of the long-distance strike and also making everyone around him better.
Tennessee relies on Derrick Henry as a runner from scrimmage when healthy. But no player in the league can duplicate what McCaffrey does as a scrimmage runner combined with receiving skills, whether it’s out of the backfield or split wide.
David Shaw, his coach at Stanford, insisted in all seriousness last season in a conversation that if the 49ers had him return punts, McCaffrey would be the best in the NFL — and it would happen immediately.
That’s the kind of reaction that comes from coaching a player who uses every practice rep as another opportunity to dominate.
After McCaffrey excelled in a no-pads practice Tuesday as if he had three steps on everyone whether it be run or pass, Darnold, a teammate in Carolina, offered a shrug.
It’s well documented that McCaffrey was almost raised from the womb to be a football player by his father Ed McCaffrey and mother Lisa. Darnold heard all about it, saw it first-hand and is seeing it again.
So seeing McCaffrey treat an OTA practice as if it were the lead-up to the Super Bowl came as no great surprise.
“I’m used to it,” Darnold said. “It really stems from meeting his dad, his mom, growing up and being raised that way. I think guys respond to that really well and it kind of pushes the guys around him.”
Coach Kyle Shanahan was reluctant to throw bouquets McCaffrey’s way given the solid attendance at OTAs, but he’s a firm believer that practice is important. He and McCaffrey are kindred spirits in that regard, and the 49ers will only benefit from one of their stars setting a torrid pace even if it’s late May.
“I think it’s really hard to practice football compared to other sports,” Shanahan said. “We have a lot of rules that don’t allow you to practice football, so it’s very good if guys can prepare to practice so they have a chance to get better.”
From the moment he arrived, McCaffrey had his teammates wide-eyed with his desire to get better and enhance the 49ers’ offense.
“He sets the standard,” 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 would happen pretty quickly just based on who he is — just how he is, how he carries himself.”
The NFL is all about attrition. McCaffrey is coming off his first healthy season since 2019. If he can hold up reasonably well, gaining 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving is a likely result and any one of the three 49ers quarterbacks could end up going along for the ride to the Super Bowl.