Now is the time for San Francisco 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell to lock himself into the starting back role in the Bay Area.
In the five years that Kyle Shanahan has been the head coach of the 49ers, no player has been San Francisco’s rushing leader in consecutive seasons. It was Carlos Hyde in 2017, then Matt Breida in 2018, Raheem Mostert in 2019, Jeff Wilson Jr. in 2020, and finally Mitchell, a rookie, in 2021. The 2022 season presents the perfect opportunity for the 49ers to finally lock down the starting running back job with a second-year back that showed tons of potential in his rookie year.
One of Mitchell’s greatest strengths with the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns was his vision in zone runs, where he could quickly process whether to bounce runs toward the outside or cut back in off a blocker’s hip. Further helping his abilities in those zone runs are his solid short-area acceleration and ability to maintain his balance through contact.
Ending up in San Francisco, then, provided the perfect opportunity for Mitchell to excel. Shanahan has long been well-known for his offensive scheme that relies primarily on zone runs, so for the Louisiana project, it was a match made in heaven, and he thrived in the Bay Area.
Despite missing six games with a variety of injuries in 2021, Mitchell was the 49ers’ leading rusher with 207 carries for 963 rushing yards and five touchdowns. That’s an average of 4.7 yard per carry, and extrapolating his stats over a full season from the 11 games he played, Mitchell was on pace for nearly 1,500 yards and eight scores. Even the missed time didn’t stop him from breaking the franchise’s single-season rookie rushing record in his 10th game of the season. His 119-yard performance against the Texans in Week 17 pushed him past Vic Washington’s record of 811 yards in his 14 games as a rookie.
What’s perhaps the wildest part of such a successful season from Mitchell was the fact that it was so unexpected. He was on the fringe of making the roster in the first place as a sixth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and the second running back picked by the 49ers that year; Trey Sermon was taken in the third round. In addition, he was behind the 49ers’ 2019 rushing leader, Mostert, and their 2020 rushing leader, Wilson, on the depth chart going into training camp.
But Mitchell got his break when Wilson tore his meniscus in the offseason and Sermon and free agent signee Wayne Gallman underwhelmed in training camp. He began the 2021 season as Mostert’s backup but was quickly thrust into the starting role when Mostert went down with a knee injury in Week 1 and missed the rest of the season. Mitchell hasn’t looked back, and the 49ers have doubled down on their trust in his ability to be their starter by letting Mostert walk in free agency.
One outstanding factor that could affect Mitchell’s role in the offense in 2022 is how the 49ers plan on using receiver Deebo Samuel. Around the time Mitchell missed time with a finger fracture (Week 10) as well as knee and concussion issues (Weeks 14-16), San Francisco started to use Samuel in more rushing situations. In the first nine weeks of the season, the receiver had tallied just six rushing attempts for 22 yards. In the following seven weeks, he tacked on 38 more carries for 279 yards and six scores.
Since the season ended though, Samuel has told the 49ers he wants to be used less frequently as a rusher, so it’s likely that he’ll get fewer touches in the form of carries in 2022. If that’s the case, Mitchell has nothing to worry about in his quest to become the first running back under Shanahan to lead the 49ers in rushing yards in back-to-back seasons.
Mitchell became an unlikely star in San Francisco as a sixth-round pick in his debut season with the team and will have the chance to solidify his position as the 49ers’ starting back for the next several years. With a young new starting quarterback under center and a solid offensive line in front of him, that shouldn’t be an issue.