For seemingly the entirety of Kyle Shanahan’s tenure as San Francisco head coach, health has been the factor on which the 49ers’ hopes of success have primarily rested.
Since 2019, the 49ers have continually had a roster talented enough to go all the way and win the Lombardi Trophy. This team has constantly had to overcome injuries, despite reaching the NFC Championship three times and a Super Bowl another under Shanahan.
The health of their roster will again be under the microscope as the Niners’ 90-man roster begins preparations for another Super Bowl run. Especially as Brock Purdy’s recovery from elbow surgery is set to dominate the headlines leading up to the new campaign.
But of underrated importance to San Francisco’s 2023 fortunes is running back Elijah Mitchell and his ability to stave off the injuries that have been a constant during an otherwise promising start to his NFL career.
Injuries limited Mitchell to just five regular-season games last year, with the 2021 sixth-round pick having been restricted to 11 in a rookie year that saw him fall 37 yards shy of 1,000 on the ground in his maiden season.
When healthy, Mitchell has provided consistently impressive production. Among rushers with at least 200 rushes across the last two seasons, Mitchell ranks third in Success Rate, according to nflindex.com. Only Miles Sanders and A.J. Dillon doing a better job of consistently getting the yards required in that time.
Decisive and with the burst to quickly surge through running lanes and up to the second level, Mitchell is not just a runner who can take advantage of the often outstanding blocking from the offensive line. He’s one who can create yardage for himself when the blocking in front of him is not perfect.
His proficiency in that regard is reflected by his performance in Football Outsiders Effective Yards, which translates DVOA into a yards-per-attempt figure. Mitchell finished the 2022 season with 279 yards, but 308 Effective Yards, indicating he outperformed his standard stats.
Elijah Mitchell obviously benefits from playing behind an excellent run-blocking line, but he consistently does a really nice job of creating yards when things aren't perfectly blocked. pic.twitter.com/zp79ZmaaQf— Nicholas McGee (@nicholasmcgee24) May 10, 2023
Mitchell would have at least one 1,000-yard season to his name if not for injuries. A lack of durability robbed him of what would likely have been a similarly productive 2022, even in a season that saw the 49ers add Christian McCaffrey into the mix.
McCaffrey is now arguably the focal point of the 49er offense, and it is his significance to the attack that makes Mitchell avoiding injuries so important in the coming season.
McCaffrey touched the ball 211 times for the 49ers and a total of 329 times last season. Only three non-quarterbacks touched the ball more often.
While the 49ers will obviously want to get McCaffrey on the field as much as possible and harness not just his running ability, but his passing-game upside and the stress his versatile skill set puts on defenses. They also must be wary of putting too much strain on a player for whom injuries have been a constant concern.
Mitchell may not present the same level of dynamism as McCaffrey, but he provides the Niners with a consistently productive back who has the speed to rip off huge gains when he gets into the open field. In terms of backs to share the load with McCaffrey and decrease his injury risk, the 49ers could hardly ask for a better back than Mitchell.
But Mitchell’s own injury issues meant the 49ers had little option to lean heavily on McCaffrey and trust his body to hold up down the stretch last term.
Thankfully, it did, but the 49ers and their star back will likely be much better off in 2023 if they can have their underrated number two available more often to lighten the load on their backfield centrepiece.