When examining the San Francisco 49ers’ ground game, one aspect deserves top billing. In five seasons under the leadership of head coach Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers have had five different leading rushers: Carlos Hyde (2017), Matt Breida (2018), Raheem Mostert (2019), Jeff Wilson Jr. (2020), and Elijah Mitchell (2021). That’s long enough to be considered a trend, and it’s one that doesn’t seem to bode very well for Mitchell, a second-year back with durability concerns.
Mitchell sits atop the depth chart for the time being, however, where he’ll be joined by Wilson, the team’s top rusher in 2020, Trey Sermon, last year’s third-round pick who struggled through a tough rookie campaign. If that weren’t already enough competition, insert Tyrion Price-Davis, whom the 49ers invested a third-round choice on this year with the hope he could provide the type of power running Shanahan loves.
Beyond that already-crowded group is wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who became more involved in the running game last season, finishing second on the team in rushing yards (365) while averaging 6.2 yards per carry. That’s a lot of variables to consider, so let’s look at the San Francisco backfield to see how things might shake out.
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Mitchell wasn’t the 49ers’ rookie RB fantasy owners were watching coming out of last year’s draft, but the sixth-round pick led the team with 963 yards on 207 carries (4.7 YPC), which was almost 700 yards ahead of Wilson, who was second among the team’s backs. That he did it while playing just 11 games is good and bad. On the positive side, his 87.5 rushing yards per game trailed just four RBs. On the bad, he missed essentially a third of his first season due to injury.
The list of ailments included a concussion to go along with rib, shoulder, and knee injuries — that led to a “cleanup procedure” during the offseason. He should be full go in camp, but it’s still concerning that his debut campaign wore him down to such a degree. Mitchell reportedly plans to play around 215 pounds this year after weighing closer to 200 as a rookie, so we’ll see if that helps his durability.
While Mitchell projects as the lead back, Price-Davis has the mix of size and speed that the 49ers love, showing enough power to run through contact and the second gear to leave defenders in his wake in the open field. There are things he’ll need to clean up as well, however, and appears to be something of a reach based on where a lot of draft prognosticators projected him to go (fifth or sixth round).
Among his issues are ball security and a lack of patience, neither of which are good ways for a young back to ingratiate himself on a team with lofty aspirations. Price-Davis doesn’t project as a workhorse, either, with most scouting reports referring to him as a rotational piece — perfect for a committee approach.
Jeff Wilson Jr. and Trey Sermon
Sermon did almost nothing in his debut campaign, appearing in nine games (just one after Oct. 10) and finishing the season on the Reserve/Injured list due to an ankle injury. Even before he was injured, Sermon barely played, and the coaching staff will be hoping another offseason with the club will serve to get him on track.
If so, look for Sermon to compete with Price-Davis for the No. 2 role. Wilson, meanwhile, is a “break in case of emergency” piece to be used if the younger players can’t deliver or stay on the field. He has shown a decent nose for the end zone and fits the zone-blocking system well enough. Just over 20 percent of the entirety of his pro plays have come on special teams.
Fantasy football outlook
While Mitchell carries the starter label, between his injury issues and the team’s history of blowing through running backs, the second-year pro should be viewed as a risk-reward RB3. Draft him for a higher profile spot than that and you’re taking a real chance.
Price-Davis could be a late-round flier given his potential in a dynamic running offense, but don’t reach based on his draft positioning — we saw how little that mattered with Mitchell and Sermon.
Speaking of Sermon, he’d warrant some late-round consideration of his own if he beats out Price-Davis for the No. 2 spot. Wilson is of no immediate concern but could warrant an add off waivers if a few things bounce his way (assuming he makes the final roster).