The contrarian thing to do is say Elijah Mitchell is the best running back the 49ers drafted in 2021. I flirted with that idea, but Trey Sermon is too good for hyperbolic statements like that.
Saying the sixth-round running back isn’t as good as the third-round running back is far from a knock. Both complement each other well, and Mitchell should bring a home run ability to the Niners' offense that Sermon lacks.
Mitchell has a chance to make an impact on special teams right away. With his 4.3 speed, Mitchell could cover kicks and punts. Plus, he has experience as a kick returner. By now, you’re well aware of how poor the 49ers' field position was last year.
The rule changes have made it difficult for kick returners, but Mitchell has the game-breaking speed where returning a kick to the 30-yard line a couple of times a game could go a long way.
Age: 23 (birthday was on May 2)
Weight: 201 pounds
Mitchell signed a four-year contract worth $3.4 million. His signing bonus was $183,572, and his cap number won’t exceed a million until 2024. If Mitchell is the RB2 of the future, and knowing that he’ll have a decent-sized workload, this is a great value contract for San Francisco.
Odds on making the roster
Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson, and Trey Sermon are making the roster. That leaves one spot for Mitchell, Wayne Gallman, and JaMycal Hasty.
Hasty had a prime opportunity in 2020 to prove that he’s worthy of a roster spot, but after back-to-back inspiring performances against the Rams and the Patriots, Hasty fizzled out and got injured.
Gallman put up respectable numbers as the Giants starter in 2020 after Saquon Barkley went down with an injury, but he had six games where he averaged under four yards per carry. Gallman is more of the “gets what’s blocked for him” type of runner.
Mitchell is more patient and explosive than both, which gives him a leg up. I’d be surprised if the sixth-rounder didn’t make the roster over Gallman or Hasty.
What to expect in 2021
An easy transition for Mitchell would be to take over the kick return duties for Jerick McKinnon and play on all special teams. Mitchell will have an opportunity to carve out a role for himself on offense — especially if the two incumbents get hurt again.
Mostert had a chance to be the team’s bell-cow back last year but missed half the season. In fact, 2019 is the only time in his career where Mostert appeared in all 16 games. I know his situation has been different each year, but we can’t ignore that fact.
Wilson missed four games last year, six the season before, and appeared in six games as a rookie. Both runners are tough as nails and run hard. The issue is when you’re under 200 pounds and expected to carry the load in back-to-back games, that punishment takes a toll.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see Sermon and Mitchell receive carries periodically during the season to ensure all four running backs stay healthy. Ideally, Mitchell gets sprinkled into the game plan as you can’t account for his speed in practice.
If he makes the most of those opportunities, then there will be an uptick in touches. I’ll point out that Mitchell would split out as a wide receiver and often go in motion in college.
The 49ers could use a running back who is comfortable in the passing game. If Mitchell shows that he’s the best receiving option for the Niners, he could find himself on the field sooner than later.