San Francisco 49ers: Elijah Mitchell Will be the Feature Back in the Offense

The San Francisco 49ers are known for having a multi-faceted rushing attack, but Elijah Mitchell is poised to become “the guy” in the backfield in 2022.

Entering the 2021 NFL season, Elijah Mitchell was not the rookie running back that most had their eyes on in San Francisco. After trading up to take Trey Sermon out of Ohio State, the writing seemed to be on the wall for the former Buckeye to lead the backfield. Due to a myriad of reasons, this was far from the actual outcome. Sermon appeared in only nine games, with ineffectiveness, a crowded backfield, and injuries to blame. Mitchell, a sixth-round pick out of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, also battled injuries throughout the season. The difference is, in the 11 games that Mitchell suited up, he averaged 87.5 yards per game.

Mitchell and Sermon utilize distinctly different running styles. Sermon grew accustomed to a more patient style while at Ohio State, while Mitchell is more of a decisive (and quicker) runner. For the Kyle Shanahan offense, it’s easy to see why the latter fit better and found more success. But, what is in store for the backfield in 2022? Oft-injured veteran, Raheem Mostert, is no longer on the roster, having taken his talents to Miami. JaMycal Hasty and Jeff Wilson Jr. are expected to challenge for roster spots, as well as rookie Tyrion Davis-Price. Given how shaky 2021 was for Sermon, it looks as though it is Mitchell’s job to lose. There is one variable that has changed for the Niners this off season, though.

All signs point to Trey Lance taking over for Jimmy Garoppolo as the the man under center. This move immediately cuts into the amount of carries that their running backs will see, because Lance’s athleticism is one of the traits that led to the team taking him No. 3 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. In his two-and-a-half games as the primary starter, Lance toted the rock 31 times. The good news? In the week 17 game versus the Texans, Mitchell still eclipsed 20 carries with Lance as the starter. Even with some of the volume being cut into, it’s hard to deny that Lance makes life easier on the running backs. The read option is lethal with Lance at quarterback, serving as a way to keep defenders off balance and constantly thinking.

As a first-year starter, Lance will lean heavy on the running game and their strong defense. There is chatter that Sermon, or even Tyrion Davis-Price, could challenge Mitchell for the top spot on the depth chart, but I’m willing to bet on the guy who surpassed the 100-yard mark in five of his ten starts in 2022. Mitchell is much more of a one-cut specialist, as he identifies an opening and immediately attacks it. In the Shanahan offense, there is very little leeway when it comes to getting downhill quickly. While he was primarily used on the ground, Mitchell also flashed an ability to make plays through the air. He caught at least three passes in three different games.

Furthermore, Mitchell is considerably faster and more explosive with the ball in his hands than Sermon. Mitchell recorded 515 yards after contact and moved the chains 47 times on first down runs. He broke 16 tackles and had a season-long 39-yard run against the Chicago Bears in week eight. Mitchell’s 963 rushing yards — in only 11 games — ranked eighth in the entire league. Assuming that Elijah Mitchell can stay healthy for a full 17-game schedule, he is a shoo-in to rank towards the top of the NFL in rushing yards. He averaged a healthy yards per carry (4.7) in 2021, and now that the defense has to focus on Lance running the ball too, I wouldn’t be surprised to see that number rise. Keep in mind, Deebo Samuel cut into the total carries last season and that still didn’t hurt Mitchell’s production.

So, even if Trey Sermon or Tyrion Davis-Price eat into the carries, they won’t overtake the top spot as long as Mitchell is healthy. Shanahan is known for running back committees, and I do think he will cycle them around, but Mitchell is positioned to be the leader of that backfield. And being the leader of a Niners backfield is going to give him every opportunity to become a household name. Mitchell will make this happen in 2022.