49ers NFL Draft: RB Elijah Mitchell will be unsung hero in 2021

Elijah Mitchell of the Louisiana Ragin Cajuns --Cajuns Coastal Carolina Football Pregame 4641
Elijah Mitchell of the Louisiana Ragin Cajuns --Cajuns Coastal Carolina Football Pregame 4641 /

While the current 49ers roster has several stalwarts, Niner Noise predicts sixth-round draft pick Elijah Mitchell might end up being a major factor this year.

Coming into the 2021 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers had several high-quality players at most positions, but nearly every position group felt like it had the capacity to be improved and developed.

The one position that might have been the lowest on that list was running back, where the emergence of Jeff Wilson Jr. during last year, along with the signing of former New York Giants tailback Wayne Gallman, developed a strong three-headed monster along with the presumed starter, Raheem Mostert. Players like JaMycal Hasty gave an added upside, too, and the expectation was the Niners would go bargain-bin hunting like they always do to add a talent they could mold at this position.

So, of course, head coach Kyle Shanahan and Co. drafted two running backs: Ohio State’s Trey Sermon in the third round and Lafayette-Louisiana’s Elijah Mitchell in the sixth. While Sermon seems to be a perfect complement to what San Francisco currently has and will definitely get run time during the season, Mitchell might be an under-the-radar player who has a major impact in 2021.

Mitchell is a burner, clocking in a 4.32 40-yard-dash; top-end speed only seen on the roster by Mostert. The 5-foot-11, 218-pound Mitchell is a north-south runner at his core, someone who is able to outrun opposing players but not really outmaneuver them, per this scouting report from Bleacher Report. And as Niner Noise’s Peter Panacy noted, his frame isn’t so small to where he’s an easy tackle.

So Mitchell is a talented-but-flawed running back who has a particular set of skills at which he is incredibly adept.

That should sound quite familiar because it’s the story of nearly every running back the 49ers have had since Shanahan and general manager John Lynch took over. Mitchell’s skills map on quite well with the scheme the 49ers currently run.

That’s important when considering just last year, Wilson, the clear-cut fourth running back on the roster, had 28.8 percent of the total running back snaps. Moreover, even when Mostert got healthy near the end of the year, Shanahan continued to integrate Wilson heavily.

49ers context at running back opens up door for Elijah Mitchell

Although there’s certainly a hope the level of injury concerns San Francisco had in 2020 will never be reached again, it’s worth noting neither Wilson or Mostert have proven themselves durable over the course of a full season, both to play every game or handle a bell-cow workload.

Snaps will most likely be available for Mitchell, and his speed will allow him to take advantage.

Additionally, Mitchell can provide some critical help in perhaps the two most frustrating positions the 49ers have had on their roster the last four years: kick returner and punt returner. Constant failure to shuffle players in and out of those positions have resulted in special teams being a major hole on the roster. True, the team’s third-round pick, defensive back Ambry Thomas, was a kick returner in college. But with Mitchell’s speed, and more importantly his lack of importance to the depth of the running back room, given how there will be at least three or so backs in front of him on the depth chart as the season starts, there’s a high chance Mitchell gets an opportunity to showcase his burners and gives the Niners a spark in the critical-yet-overlooked third phase of the game.

With a roster as talented as San Francisco’s, unsung heroes often times come from the margins, solving minor problems and providing a boost however they can.

Mitchell has every opportunity to do so this year. Now it’s up to him to see if he can actualize on that possibility.

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