A 2021 sixth-round pick by way of Louisiana-Lafayette, Elijah Mitchell has become a star overnight for Kyle Shanahan’s San Francisco 49ers. A north-south runner lacking the top-end explosiveness of a Raheem Mostert or Trey Sermon, Mitchell has become the bell-cow back for an offense that’s begun to find its footing as it scratches its way toward a playoff bid.
A day-three product, his play, once again, has highlighted the drop in draft-day value surrounding the running back position. Despite teams continuously asking more and more from their skill players on the offensive side of the ball, as running backs touting the ability to catch the football out of the backfield has become a need, not a want, in today’s NFL, along with possessing the required pop to succeed on the ground, talents like Mitchell have elongated the process for teams looking to pull the trigger on a ball-carrier in the spring.
The league’s second-leading rusher among all first-year running backs despite dealing with a multitude of minor injuries in his first professional campaign, when Mitchell has found himself within the hashes, he's made the most of his opportunity and then some. A year expected to represent a three-headed backfield headlined by Mostert, a veteran back with electric speed, and 2021 fellow draftee in Sermon, following Mostert’s injury, Mitchell hit the ground running as Shanahan’s lead back, eclipsing the century mark with a 104-yard performance in a Week 1 shootout win over Detroit.
A talent who won’t blow you away with a burst through the second level like Mostert or bowl you over like Sermon, Mitchell is a smooth, fleet-of-foot ball-carrier whose decisiveness in his cuts and ability to get skinny in creases highlighted his 133-yard performance this past Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. Although he’s been present for just 64% of the offensive snaps, Mitchell’s workload has quickly increased despite him battling a broken finger and injured ribs, totaling 54 carries the last two weeks combined. With both games resulting in wins, it’s a trend expected to continue and increase with do-it-all talent Deebo Samuel (groin) expected to miss a few weeks.
But, his presence within the 49ers’ offense goes deeper than his success with the ball in his hands, as his progression as a blocker in pass pro has seen his role on third downs increase. And while he doesn’t have the receptions, yet, to highlight his workload on passing downs, the absence of Samuel within San Francisco’s aerial attack should invite more touches for Mitchell.
“I mean if you just watch him [Mitchell], he just runs downhill,” 49ers tight end George Kittle said. “A play that is blocked for three yards goes for seven yards, a play that is blocked for one yard end up being four yards… he just runs his tail off. He’s very physical, makes quick decisions, and doesn’t second guess himself.”
The 10th running back selected in April’s draft, Mitchell’s success has remained parallel with his violent approach to the running game. A 200-pound talent who plays with much more sand in his pants than what pops up on the scale, his low pad level and ability to initiate and power through contact battles makes him tough to wrangle down.
“He’s not going to run 23 miles an hour, but that five yards in between where he gets the ball through the line of scrimmage...he's just so explosive and so fast,” Kittle said. “I think guys think, ‘I'm going to get him with an arm tackle because he's not the biggest back in the world’, but he just runs through arm tackles.”
Just now getting his feet wet at the NFL level, the ceiling on Mitchell is uncapped. A small-school product with big-time potential, he could represent the face of the 49ers’ run game for years to come.