Elijah Mitchell is the hero 49ers need to spark bounce-back

Elijah Mitchell #25 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images)
Elijah Mitchell #25 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images) /

While Deebo Samuel has been carrying the 49ers offense, rookie Elijah Mitchell is quietly the weapon the Niners need to feature in the second half of 2021.

He doesn’t have the name recognition San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Deebo Samuel has. And certainly not the name recognition of All-Pro tight end George Kittle.

But arguably the best positive storyline of the Niners’ 2021 season has been the rise of rookie running back Elijah Mitchell, who was probably little more than an afterthought after being selected by San Francisco in Round 6 of this year’s NFL Draft out of small-school Louisiana-Lafayette.

From a player who was on the fringes of making the 53-man roster out of training camp to one of the 49ers’ top weapons nearly halfway through the regular season, Mitchell is a player head coach Kyle Shanahan needs to work around.

Mitchell has asserted himself as the No. 1 option on the ground in the wake of veteran rusher Raheem Mostert’s season-ending knee injury suffered back in Week 1, also pushing out the higher-profile draft pick, running back Trey Sermon, into the ranks of the forgotten.

That might be a concern for the Niners at some point. But with Mostert set to be a 30-year-old free agent in 2022, all the signs are pointing to Mitchell being Shanahan’s featured tailback for a long, long time.

Elijah Mitchell tied a 49ers rookie record in Week 8 performance vs. Bears

Riding a four-game losing streak, Shanahan was going to be desperate in getting San Francisco’s offense back to par in Week 8 against the Chicago Bears. And while Samuel carried the load through the air in the 33-22 victory, notching six receptions for 171 yards, the 49ers reemphasizing the ground game was going to be a key way to get off the schneid.

And Mitchell delivered with a 18-carry, 137-yard performance with a touchdown, averaging an impressive 7.6 yards per rush.

In doing so, Mitchell tied a franchise record for most 100-yard rush games by a rookie with three, previously set by quarterback Billy Kilmer way back in 1961, according to 49ers Webzone. Before Week 8’s performance, Mitchell ran for 104 yards in the Niners’ regular-season opener win against the Detroit Lions and then 107 yards in the Week 7 loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Now with 433 rush yards on the season, it’s certainly looking like Mitchell can shoulder an even bigger load to help San Francisco get back into the playoff discussion.

And he’ll probably set a new franchise record in this department if the team elects to feature him more.

49ers must set Elijah Mitchell up for more success in coming weeks

One of the more frustrating points about Shanahan’s offense in recent weeks was moving away from the run game to a large degree, especially the outside-zone runs where an elusive player like Mitchell can use his speed to take advantage of the open field.

According to Next Gen Stats’ rushing tree for Mitchell in Week 8, though, Shanahan called for more plays where Mitchell could get outside of the tackles and into open space:

It worked.

Granted, Mitchell still has some youthful elements for his vision, including running up the middle at times and into the backs of his lead blockers instead of showcasing the patience needed to see routes develop. Or at least the improvising skills to take plays in another direction.

That’ll likely come in time, though. Meanwhile, Mitchell’s strengths are things the 49ers have to exploit.

And the sooner, the better.

Read More: 49ers position grades, analysis from Week 8 win over Bears

This will have to start again and anew in Week 9 when the Niners host the one-loss Arizona Cardinals, who could potentially be without quarterback Kyler Murray, who’s dealing with an ankle injury. Mitchell rushed for only 43 yards on nine attempts the last time these two teams faced each other back in Week 5, an example why Shanahan should have relied more on the rookie rusher’s abilities instead of focusing on other aspects, such as trying to make rookie quarterback Trey Lance the game’s X-factor.

While this upcoming game will certainly be a challenge regardless of Murray’s availability, Shanahan should clearly understand one of Arizona’s biggest weaknesses this season has been stopping the run, currently allowing 4.9 yards per rush through Week 8, which ranks next to worst in the league.

If San Francisco wants to be discussed as a playoff contender again this season, Mitchell will have to be a key reason why.

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