49ers vs. Chiefs: Elijah Mitchell can steal roster spot with strong game

San Francisco 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell (49) Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell (49) Mandatory Credit: Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports /

While the majority of focus during the 49ers’ preseason opener versus the Chiefs will be on Trey Lance, Elijah Mitchell should be another name to watch.

It might not be as intriguing or as important as the San Francisco 49ers‘ push to get rookie quarterback Trey Lance into a starting position.

But the Niners’ still-fluid depth chart at running back should be another main focal point when head coach Kyle Shanahan’s squad opens up its 2021 preseason campaign at home on Saturday versus the Kansas City Chiefs.

And this is where another rookie, sixth-round running back Elijah Mitchell, comes into play.

There’s no questioning San Francisco will feature running backs Raheem Mostert and Trey Sermon a lot this season, Mostert being the experienced veteran while Sermon is the higher-profile first-year pro drafted in Round 3 this year.

Mitchell, however, has a much tougher road to cross, particularly with two other depth runners competing for likely two final spots on the 49ers’ 53-man roster, Wayne Gallman and JaMycal Hasty.

Barring some kind of injury designation, head coach Kyle Shanahan isn’t going to keep four running backs on the regular-season roster. And if Shanahan still wants his veterans, Gallman might be in line for a role, too.

So, if Mitchell wants to separate himself and ensure he’s overtaking Hasty on the depth chart, doing so against the Chiefs on Saturday will go a long way.

49ers have already been impressed by Elijah Mitchell

Mitchell was one of the more impressive standouts during training camp up to this point, and Sports Illustrated’s Grant Cohn was one of a number of beat reporters who highlighted the kind of impact the rookie was having:

"As well as Sermon has played, Mitchell has played even better. He currently is the second-best running back on the team after Mostert. Almost all of Mitchell’s runs gain big yards."

Despite playing at a small-school program, the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns, Mitchell’s 4.32 40-yard speed is something that could potentially make him a long-term replacement for the also-fast but also 29-year-old Mostert, who’s a free agent next season.

But for Mitchell to carve out a spot on the 53-man roster, he’ll have to do more than just be fast.

Fortunately, Mitchell has caught the eye of Shanahan, too, who said as much after a recent practice:

"I think he’s doing a good job. … He’s been hitting the right holes and it was nice to see him not look any different today. We’re not taking guys to the ground, but he lowers his pads, tries to run through things and excited to see him in some of these games."

Read More: Elijah Mitchell could be 49ers’ next hidden gem

49ers plan on using Elijah Mitchell on special teams vs. Chiefs

If Mitchell is to beat out players like Hasty and, to a lesser extent, Gallman, he’ll have to showcase more than just being a third- or fourth-string running back.

Mitchell should be expected to see a good deal of carries against Kansas City on Saturday, particularly in the second half when essentially all starters have come out of the game. And the rookie should have little trouble flashing that speed against defenders who’ll likely have a tough time cracking the Chiefs’ stacked roster.

Yet the key for Mitchell to truly earn a spot for the regular season will be if he can excel on special teams, which actually might get him in the game earlier than if he was to strictly play on offense only.

Good thing Mitchell is taking that seriously.

“It’s crazy because I never did special teams in college at all, so doing special teams—I’m a gunner now—I just have to take that real serious and do good in preseason, and I can do my job,” Mitchell shared, via 49ers Webzone. “Like I said, I’m willing to do anything and everything just to be on this team. “So, [special teams] is going to be one of my roles but also being a running back too. But have I have to take special teams seriously, and that’s what I plan to do.”

That speed could go a long way towards being effective on special teams, too. After all, long before Mostert became a starter, he was known for being a quality gunner on special teams.

It worked out well for him. Perhaps it’ll work out well for Mitchell, too.

The Niners and Chiefs kick off on Saturday, Aug. 14 at 8:30 p.m. ET.

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