49ers should keep Jeff Wilson starting once Elijah Mitchell returns

Jeff Wilson Jr. #22 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images)
Jeff Wilson Jr. #22 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Eakin Howard/Getty Images) /

The 49ers lost their top running back, Elijah Mitchell, back in Week 1 to an injury, yet Jeff Wilson Jr. should remain the starter once Mitchell comes back.

In an ideal world, the San Francisco 49ers wouldn’t have to think too hard about their running back room and whether or not a player like Jeff Wilson Jr. or Elijah Mitchell should receive the lion’s share of carries.

Those questions would have been addressed during training camp.

However, Mitchell suffered a sprained MCL during the Niners’ Week 1 loss to the Chicago Bears, landing him on injured reserve and resulting in him being out for at least a couple of months.

It’s not yet clear when the second-year pro will be fully ready to return to action, and speculation suggests San Francisco will work him back in after its Week 9 bye and before Week 10 against the Los Angeles Chargers.

If there’s been one beneficiary of Mitchell’s absence, though, it’s Wilson.

Over five games, three of them starts, Wilson has looked a lot like how he did back in 2020 when he was the 49ers’ leading rusher with 600 yards on the ground. To date, he has 375 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 5.1 yards per carry.

At this pace, he’ll easily eclipse his career-best 2020 campaign, provided he still is the alpha in the backfield.

And that’s what the Niners should ensure.

49ers must retain Jeff Wilson as their starter over Elijah Mitchell

This isn’t a knock against Mitchell, who set a franchise record for a rookie last year with 963 rush yards over just 11 games played, and it’s anyone’s guess what his numbers would have been if he hadn’t suffered other significant injuries during his first year at the pro level.

However, knowing Mitchell is an injury-prone player matters here.

Last season reinforced the notion that Mitchell probably isn’t suited for bell-cow kind of work, which certainly influenced the Niners’ decision to both retain Wilson and grab rookie rusher Tyrion Davis-Price in Round 3 of this year’s NFL Draft.

However, with Davis-Price also shelved with an injury, Wilson should end up staying in a starter’s role.

This isn’t a concept foreign to head coach Kyle Shanahan, who has often deployed bigger, stronger running backs early in games to test out opposing defenses and wear them down. Once that falls into place, Shanahan would often deploy his speedier, more elusive running backs over the second half.

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Case in point, San Francisco’s leading rusher in 2019, Raheem Mostert, started precisely zero games that year, and Shanahan deferred to fellow veteran Tevin Coleman to shoulder the starting load.

Wilson still has that burst. But, more importantly, he’s also proven to be far more durable than Mitchell. True, the 49ers can still use Mitchell in a Mostert-like deployment, thereby lessening the injury-risk exposure to the speedster down the stretch and into the playoffs, hopefully.

Meanwhile, Wilson can still lead off for Shanahan’s ground attack. That’d be the wisest approach.

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