49ers roster 2021: Elijah Mitchell might be that next hidden gem
By Peter Panacy
The 49ers used their final pick of the 2021 NFL Draft on running back Elijah Mitchell, and he could easily wind up being the latest Niners hidden gem.
The first-year future for San Francisco 49ers rookie running back Elijah Mitchell is pretty wide heading into 2021 training camp.
While it’s entirely possible the former Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajun could end up off the roster altogether, there’s still a strong possibility he winds up being a key rotational player this season and serving as a workable dual-threat offensive weapon for head coach Kyle Shanahan right away.
Mitchell, of course, was the Niners’ final pick of the 2021 NFL Draft. Selected in Round 6 at No. 194 overall, the 5-foot-10, 201-pound Mitchell’s trajectory as a small-school find could make him a unique weapon for San Francisco.
Especially when considering his ability to double as a pass-catching tailback.
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Granted, Mitchell faces a crowded backfield despite the 49ers losing veteran running back Jeff Wilson Jr. to a meniscus tear for four to six months. And there’s a good chance the rookie either winds up on the practice squad to kick off his pro career or not even on the roster at all.
Still, given Mitchell’s potential upside and how fun it is to hype up first-year players, let’s try to carve out his possible niche and impact for the Niners in year one.
Why Elijah Mitchell carves out solid role with 49ers in 2021
Mitchell was only the second of two running backs San Francisco drafted, the other being Ohio State’s Trey Sermon in Round 3.
Whereas Sermon is the tougher, more physical tailback, Mitchell is the player who can run right by defenders with ease, not unlike the projected No. 1 rusher on the roster, Raheem Mostert.
In case you were wondering, Mitchell ran a 4.32 40-yard time during his pro day. And while Mitchell might not possess the multi-cut abilities to make him a nearly impossible tackler, once he gets by a defender, the end zone can be a possibility.
Whether or not it’s from a handoff or a reception, Mitchell has the straight-line speed to be a home-run threat, potentially being the Option B to help support a player like Mostert on the roster.
And few head coaches across the league appreciate speed more than the 49ers’ own, Shanahan.
Why Elijah Mitchell flattens out with 49ers in 2021
With all his speed and versatility, why did Mitchell fall all the way into Round 6?
OK, the small-school pedigree might be a question mark. But the bigger concern with Mitchell could possibly be how his speed is essentially his lone weapon.
Mitchell doesn’t necessarily possess the best field vision, and he frequently took his carries all the way to the outside instead of jumping on the initial lanes opened up by his immediate blockers. Identifying those holes appears to be a bit of a challenge, yet the hope is Shanahan’s outside-zone system helps Mitchell thrive a bit here.
The problem, however, is the Niners already have rushers who excel better in these specific areas.
And with Mitchell not having played much on special teams, he’ll need to avoid falling into these pitfalls of being a one-cut runner well out on the outside.
Chances of making 49ers’ 53-man roster
Mostert and Sermon are effectively guaranteed roster spots, taking up two of a likely four spots Shanahan will keep for the position.
With Wilson shelved for roughly half the year, the remaining two are going to come down to Mitchell, JaMycal Hasty and Wayne Gallman.
Related Story: Kyle Shanahan can get the most out of Elijah Mitchell
Gallman, the elder statesman of the three, could be the favorite to secure a No. 3 spot on the roster, provided San Francisco wants to bank on his experience. Or it’s possible the 49ers appreciate the similar scatback versatility of Hasty, who flashed promise last year despite suffering his own season-ending injury in 2021.
Hasty, the undrafted free agent from a year ago, might be a player the Niners prefer to stash on the practice squad. But that could be tough, essentially meaning one of those three names will have to go.
Fortunately for Mitchell, all he needs to do is outperform Gallman or Hasty during training camp, not both, for a best shot at making the roster.
And given Mitchell’s speed, it’s possible he could end up serving as a high-use gadget weapon right out of the gate.