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49ers rookie report: Elijah Mitchell showed why he’s the starting running back

Plus, a breakdown of Trey Lance

San Francisco 49ers v Arizona Cardinals Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images

The 49ers 2021 rookie class saw its most snaps played of the season, and that’s no coincidence as Trey Lance started the first game of his young NFL career. So let’s talk about how the rookies performed and assign grades to them.

QB Trey Lance: B-

All things considered, Lance played well. He’s not being graded on the same curve as Jimmy Garoppolo because Lance is a 21-year-old who played with the starters in practice extensively for the first time last week.

The positives? His athleticism, live arm, and passing up the “singles” for the “doubles.” I thought Lance’s footwork and timing were better than ever against Arizona.

The cons? Everything you’d expect from a rookie. Setting the pass protection, consistently seeing the field, and not trying to do too much.

Lance showed progress in certain areas as the game went along. He pulled the trigger on some routes he previously passed up and even beat the blitz with his arm and not his legs.

I talked more about the highs, lows, and inevitable growing pains the 49ers will have with Lance as the starter in the breakdown below:

I have a difficult time seeing how Lance improves if he’s on the bench. Unfortunately, a left knee sprain could keep Lance sidelined.

RG Aaron Banks: DNP

Kyle Shanahan said, “scout team is a big deal for Aaron” a little over a week ago. Banks is going on his sixth week playing scout team. Shanahan cited how Banks needed to get into playing shape and also how he wasn’t asked to run as much as the 49ers offensive lineman are in college.

If there were ever a time when Banks is inserted into the lineup, it’d be after the bye week. Based on what we saw during training camp, Banks was a long way away from playing. That was two months ago, and you’d hope the second-rounder has progressed since then.

The 49ers would like to be patient with Banks. Unfortunately, Daniel Brunskill isn’t affording them that luxury. If the team were to change at right guard and Banks isn’t the next man up, fans would jump to using the “B” word to describe Banks.

RB Trey Sermon: B+

Sermon had one carry, and he broke a tackle and went seven yards for a first down. That was Sermon’s only touch in a game where he played two snaps. So his performance on the field can only be judged by that carry.

It’s evident that the coaching staff prefers the sixth-round rookie to the running back they traded up in the third round for — and I understand why.

CB Ambry Thomas: DNP

I’d be surprised if we saw Thomas play a snap this season. K’Waun Williams is expected to return to the lineup. That would mean Josh Norman, Emmanuel Moseley, Dontae Johnson, and Deommodore Lenoir are all in front of Thomas on the depth chart.

LT Jaylon Moore: DNP

Moore not playing is a great sign as that means Trent Williams, the best left tackle in the NFL, is in the game.

CB Deommodore Lenoir: DNP

I know Johnson forced a fumble. That was a great play that you cannot take away from him. However, only pointing to that play or referencing Johnson as a “veteran” ignores him getting beaten left and right in coverage or missing tackles. Johnson, outside of the forced fumble, was a liability on Sunday.

Lenoir allowed over 150 yards against the Eagles and Packers on 15 targets. There’s not much of an argument for playing a rookie who, although played aggressive, continually allowed receptions and the occasional big play. I think Lenoir would have been better the more he played, but that’s more of a projection and ignores what happened on the field.

S Talanoa Hufanga: B

Hufanaga played five snaps on defense and made the most of them. He’s a do-it-all safety that can play a variety of roles. For example, Hufanga blitzed off the edge to force an errant throw from Murray. If the team doesn’t trust Lenoir, that’s understandable. I’d trust Jimmie Ward in the slot with Jaquiski Tartt and Hufanga as the other safeties if the plan were to put your best 11 players on the field.

RB Elijah Mitchell: B+

Mitchell’s speed makes a difference. He can get through the hole faster than Sermon. It might be that simple as to why he’s playing more. Mitchell did an impressive job of maximizing yards. He had 11 touches and averaged 5.6 yards. Here’s a look at all of his touches:

Mitchell could give the 49ers something extra in the passing game. It could be as simple as throwing a swing route, making a guy miss, and turning that play into 15 yards. Mitchell did that against the Cardinals.

The 49ers ran two man-blocking plays with Mitchell, which is a change from what they generally do. That could also speak to their confidence in Mithcell and his versatility. He was their best rookie against the Cardinals.