When fantasy football owners looked at the San Francisco 49ers’ draft haul in 2021, two names stood out: quarterback Trey Lance and running back Trey Sermon. The team’s first- and third-round choices, respectively, would ultimately contribute sparingly. Instead, it would be San Francisco’s final selection who delivered for fantasy owners in the form of sixth-round pick Elijah Mitchell, the team leader in carries (207), rushing yards (963), and rushing touchdowns (6).
That he accomplished all of that while appearing in just 11 of 17 games makes it even more impressive, though it also lays the foundation for this piece as he missed time dealing with shoulder, rib, hand, head, and knee injuries — at least his ankles went unscathed. The knee injury was the most serious, and the 24-year-old opted to undergo a cleanup procedure on it following the season, though the hope is he’ll be ready to roll full speed by training camp.
For his part, Mitchell recognizes he wasn’t durable enough as a rookie, and he has reportedly been spending the offseason trying to bulk up to 215 pounds to better handle the rigors of life in the NFL (he weighed 201 pounds at the 2021 NF Scouting Combine). Whether adding size will act as a panacea for the durability issues is to be determined, as is whether that bulk will affect the speed that was his most desirable trait coming out of Louisiana.
Perhaps of greater concern is the disposable nature of running backs under head coach Kyle Shanahan. Consider this, in Shanahan’s five seasons on the job in San Francisco, the 49ers have had five different leading rushers: Carlos Hyde (2017), Matt Breida (2018), Raheem Mostert (2019), Jeff Wilson (2020), and Mitchell (2021). That’s enough time to be considered a trend, and it’s one that doesn’t bode well for a second-year back who had trouble staying on the field.
There’s no shortage of options in the backfield, either. That includes rookie Tyrion Davis-Price, a third-round pick out of LSU who boasts the type of speed/agility combination that Shanahan covets. Wilson, who finished third on the team in rushing last year, and Sermon, who struggled as a rookie but clearly has talent, are also options.
In addition, wide receiver Deebo Samuel became more and more involved in the running game as the season wore on, finishing second on the club in rushing yards (365) while averaging 6.2 per attempt. Granted, there are contract issues and a trade demand to work out with Samuel, but until Week 1 arrives without him in a 49ers uniform that’s just smoke. Working Mitchell’s favor is Samuel’s reported disinterest in playing running back again, so tuck that thought away as a potential upside factor.
Areas of concern that must be addressed: The 49ers lost borderline Hall of Famer center Alex Mack to retirement this offseason, and Pro Bowl guard Laken Tomlinson — who is a beast in the running game — went to the New York Jets via free agency. Lance will likely start for the Niners, which means his rushing prowess is bound to steal looks from Mitchell, especially in the red zone.
Fantasy football outlook
As of today, Mitchell is the top back to own in San Francisco’s crowded backfield, which is not a ringing endorsement given his questionable durability, Shanahan’s view on the position, Lance’s presence, OL concerns, and the team’s proven ability to run the ball effectively no matter who’s carrying the rock. Consider Mitchell a quality RB3 with elevated risk potential.