Trey Sermon reverts back to being a 49ers afterthought

Trey Sermon #28 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images)
Trey Sermon #28 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Michael Zagaris/San Francisco 49ers/Getty Images) /

Despite an impressive performance in Week 4, rookie Trey Sermon has once again found himself buried on the 49ers depth chart, which prompts questions.

The San Francisco 49ers may not be receiving the best of grades for properly developing their rookie talent in 2021.

A huge chunk of the focus, of course, centers on rookie quarterback Trey Lance, who looked wholly underprepared in his inaugural NFL start in Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals following a calf injury to veteran signal-caller Jimmy Garoppolo the previous week.

But perhaps an even more perplexing development has been the up-and-down usage of the Niners’ third-round choice from this year’s NFL Draft, running back Trey Sermon, who found himself dropped down the depth chart in favor of another rookie, sixth-rounder Elijah Mitchell, only to be back up again when Mitchell suffered a shoulder injury in Week 2.

With Mitchell’s return in Week 5, Sermon was once again banished to the back end of the depth chart.

True, when healthy, Mitchell has been excellent. To date, he’s averaging 4.2 yards per carry and is San Francisco’s leading rusher with 189 yards.

Should that be at the expense of Sermon, though?

Trey Sermon got another disappearing act vs. Cardinals

In Week 4 against the Seattle Seahawks, Sermon’s second start, the former Ohio State product finally had his breakout-type game, albeit against a bad Seattle run defense, churning out 89 rush yards on 19 carries and averaging 4.7 yards per attempt.

Mitchell was out, yes. But that should have been enough evidence to suggest Sermon should be a primary focal point of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense.

Instead, Sermon was relegated to backup duty behind Mitchell against the Cardinals, logging only a single carry for 9 yards.

Yeah, a pretty sharp decline.

An explanation from general manager John Lynch, albeit one with some questions, was made to KNBR 680 earlier this week (h/t 49ers Webzone) in which Lynch said:

"I thought he was improving each week. I guess the bottom line is Elijah Mitchell came back, and Elijah had been really good prior to getting injured, hurting his shoulder. I thought Elijah came back and was running the football well. And we ran the ball a lot with Trey [Lance]. You couple those two things and there weren’t that many carries. I think that’s the best explanation.But I can tell you that everybody is very pleased. Even the one run Trey Sermon had, I think he went for eight or nine (it was seven) yards. Trey’s really on the right track. We’re proud of his development, and I expect to see him as part of us in a bigger way moving forward."

Lance ran the ball a lot, too, yes. And the 49ers were struggling to get their ground game going, particularly with only 12 non-Lance rushes over the course of the game against an Arizona defense that was allowing 5.4 yards per carry entering the contest.

Still, it’s puzzling why Sermon hasn’t factored into the offense more, even with Mitchell back.

49ers botching Trey Sermon development, too?

Lance should be receiving more first-team reps in practice, yes. And the Niners’ second-round draft pick, offensive guard Aaron Banks, has been inactive all five games after wholly underperforming in training camp.

Sermon, however, was intended to be a prime contributor to the offense, and his role should have increased once San Francisco lost No. 1 running back Raheem Mostert to a season-ending knee injury.

Read More: 49ers rookie stock watch after 5 games in 2021

Instead, and for whatever the reasons, Shanahan is deferring almost exclusively to Mitchell when healthy, not Sermon, the higher-profile draft pick.

This is one of those elements that has been puzzling to the 49ers’ rookie development this year. It’s one thing for Shanahan to almost exclusively support veteran players, especially high-performing ones. And Shanahan does have a knack, too, for riding whichever player has the hot hand regardless of draft status or whatever.

Yet Sermon’s breakout game in Week 4 suggested he’s not exactly cold, so it’s another troubling development for a Niners team that has largely failed to maximize the impact made by this year’s rookie class.

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