The phrase “Any Given Sunday” is one that we tend to pass around freely, but there is some serious merit to it. No matter how confident we are in our projections, what actually transpires always comes with many surprises that no one could have seen coming. For instance, the San Francisco 49ers’ usage of their skill players on Sunday. Star receiver Brandon Aiyuk was more of a rotational player, but he wasn’t the only marquee player to not receive the role he expected: running back Trey Sermon was a surprise inactive.
This led to Raheem Mostert being ranked as a top-ten running back for the week against a poor Lions defense, but, sadly, that didn’t come to fruition; he left the game with a knee injury, which will cost him the rest of his season. Thus, sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell was suddenly thrust into the spotlight. One week ago, Mitchell wasn’t even a consideration in drafts. Now? He’s the player you and your opponents were spending as much of their FAAB as needed to add him to your team. So, the question remains: who is Mitchell, and what is his outlook for the upcoming season? We’ll break down the sixth-round rookie here. As we’ll get to, Mitchell isn’t your typical late-round “dart throw”, and he should be expected to be a key contributor for years to come.
Who Is Elijah Mitchell?
To be honest, I was surprised that Mitchell fell to the sixth round of the draft; he was more qualified than that draft position would make you think. The 23-year-old made quite the name for himself during his college career at Louisiana-Lafayette:
Those are all well-above-average numbers, even in a non-Power 5 school. In 2020, Louisiana ranked 32nd in PFF run-block grade and 39th in PFF run-block grade in 2018. Considering that those were those two peak years, and Louisiana’s best offensive line actually came in his worse season, I think it’s safe to say he wasn’t reliant on his offensive line in college. For what it’s worth if you take away his first two games of the season, Mitchell averaged 6.2 yards/rush attempt in 2019, so his struggles may be attributed to a poor start more than anything else.
Mitchell had an illustrious college career in terms of production. However, that’s not all he brings to the table. As you can see from his breakaway numbers, he was quite the explosive back in college. Well, that showed up in his athletic testing numbers. With a 4.40 40-yard dash, Mitchell ranked in the 86th percentile in speed score, per Player Profiler, while he also performed well in the agility exercises and posted a 37.5-inch vertical jump. Thus, not only is he athletic when it comes to straight-line speed, but he passes all the tests when it comes to elusiveness as well. If you can be elusive and have breakaway speed, then what else do you need?
Not only is Mitchell a talented back, but he’s one that fits head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme very well. Shanahan wants to create his chunk plays through the rushing game, which means getting his running backs out in space via tosses, sweeps, stretch runs, and screens in his outsize-zone rushing scheme. Mitchell primarily played in a zone-rushing scheme in college and has the exact type of burst that Shanahan is looking for. Take his touchdown in Week 1 as an example:
— TWSN (@TWSN___) September 12, 2021
In his debut, Mitchell handled 19 carries for 104 rushing yards and that touchdown. Shanahan knows exactly what he wants in his running backs, and Mitchell provides that. With his speed, elusiveness, and tackle-breaking ability, this is a high-quality runner that I believe would have gone much higher in the draft had he played for a Power-5 program. I’m sure the 49ers are just fine with how it played out.
Kyle Shanahan’s Running Back Usage
The narrative that persists Kyle Shanahan is that he is 100% in favor of a “running-back-by-committee” situation, and doesn’t ever sway from that strategy. However, I’m not sure that’s completely true. Let’s go through Shanahan’s running back usage, starting in 2015.
2015 (Falcons Offensive Coordinator)
With 18.92 carries per game (left Week 11 injured), DeVonta Freeman was on pace for 300 carries for Shanahan’s offense in Atlanta. You would expect Freeman, a smaller back with big-play ability, to be more limited, yet that wasn’t the case. Meanwhile, in the two games, he was injured, Tevin Coleman filled in 18 and 20 carries, respectively. In fact, if you just look at the carry numbers when Freeman fully took the job from Coleman, those numbers would be even higher. Shanahan was perfectly fine leaning on one running back this season.
2016 (Falcons Offensive Coordinator)
While leading the most productive offense in the NFL, Shanahan leaned a bit more on a committee situation. Freeman averaged 14.19 carries/game, or 227 overall, while Coleman remained a factor with about nine carries per game. This “x2” split also was applicable to the receiving game, where Freeman ran twice the amount of routes that Coleman did.
2017 (49ers Head Coach)
Shanahan went back to having one lead running back, with Carlos Hyde totaling 15 carries/game and 240 overall, while backup Matt Breida had just 6.6 carries/game. These totals may have been higher had San Francisco had more overall team success, and it shows up in the receiving game; Hyde ran 376 routes, while Breida ran just 159. There was a definite split here.
2018 (49ers Head Coach)
Shanahan adopted more of a committee this season, but mainly due to consistent injuries more than anything else. Alfred Morris and Matt Breida started the year in a 50/50 timeshare, with Jeff Wilson Jr. working his way in once Morris went down with an injury with 38 combined carries in Weeks 13 and 14. Shanahan demonstrated multiple times to be fine leaning on one running back when injuries forced him to do so, but the lack of consistent health lead to no clear “top running back” for this season.
2019 (49ers Head Coach)
This is likely where the narrative of Shanahan having a complete committee originated from; Raheem Mostert, Tevin Coleman, and Matt Breida formed a three-headed monster in the backfield. Coleman averaged 18 carries/game between Weeks 5 and 7, but eventually fell out of favor, with five carries or fewer in every game after Week 12. This led to increased usage for Raheem Mostert, who rushed for at least 50 yards in every game between Weeks 13 and 17.
2020 (49ers Head Coach)
Mostert immediately was the clear “top back” with 15 carries in Week 1, but he suffered an injury in Week 1, which led to Coleman assuming the role in his place in Week 2. Shanahan then let Jerick McKinnon take the lead role in Weeks 3 and 4 before Mostert re-took in once back healthy from Weeks 5 and 6. Exhausted yet? There’s more! Jeff Wilson Jr. then became the lead back in Week 7 with 17 carries, but then he went down with an injury, leading to JaMychal Hasty starting in Week 8 before McKinnon received 12 and 18 carries in Weeks 9 and 10, respectively. From there, Mostert returned to that lead status but was eventually shut down after Week 15.
This is what I want to specifically focus on. Mostert left in the middle of the Week 15 game due to injury, and, from there, Wilson Jr. assumed a lead role. Not only did he receive 16 carries in just half a game, but he proceeded to have 22 and 20 carries, respectively, between Weeks 16 and 17. Shanahan was forced to trust one running back in that spot, and he was willing to do just that. I understand that Shanahan’s preference is to have a committee, but as injuries have come up, he’s adjusted. I’d expect something similar in 2021.
Mitchell’s Outlook Moving Forward
Something that was clear in Shanahan’s decisions is that he doesn’t let previous decisions affect future ones. Despite the fact that Tevin Coleman was the highest-paid running back, he was fine playing other running backs that had proven themselves more and hasn’t let draft pedigree be something that has affected his decision-making.
This stems well for Mitchell, a sixth-round rookie who certainly will always have to play with a chip on his shoulder. The expectation was that third-round rookie Trey Sermon, a high-pedigree player from Ohio State who the team had to draft up to select, was going to be a co-starter with Mostert. Yet, it appears Mitchell simply outplayed him. Based on Shanahan’s history, that puts Mitchell in the driver’s seat until he proves himself unworthy of staying there.
Once Mostert left in Week 1, it was Mitchell who played all of the meaningful snaps; there was no split between him and backup JaMycal Hasty. Mitchell (5’11”, 218 pounds) is more than capable of handling a noticeable workload and is the exact type of running back Shanahan is looking for. I wouldn’t let the threat of Sermon, the eventual return of Jeff Wilson Jr., or any narrative about Shanahan prevent you from trusting Mitchell to finish the season on a high note.
The 49ers are a run-heavy offense with a very favorable rushing scheme. Projected as co-starters, Mostert was being drafted as the 27th and 30th running backs off the board in PPR drafts, per Fantasy Data, while Mostert was the RB25 heading into 2020. With a larger projected workload, simply based out of necessity, Mitchell should easily classify as a top-24 running back, or an RB2 moving forward. He’s going to get the opportunities, is going to be a part of a high-scoring offense, and is simply a talented player in his own right. What else could you ask for?
In dynasty formats, the threat of Sermon is more serious, but not enough to make me overly nervous. Mostert is a pending free agent, making it likely that the future of this backfield is some sort of split of Mitchell and Sermon moving forward; Sermon is short-yardage situations, Mitchell as their explosive runner. Part of the lowest average draft position for Mostert was a thought that Sermon would eventually take over as the lead back so that probably is doing Mitchell’s future average draft position (ADP) a disservice. Of the rookie running backs, you can make a clear case that Mitchell can work his way into being the best running back from this draft outside of the clear “top three” of Najee Harris, Javonte Williams, and Travis Etienne. Personally, I think there’s a clear pathway to him being a Top 25 running back in this format; I can understand if others want to see this situation play out here, but this is a very talented player who could be in a great situation moving forward.
Who is ready to see the Elijah Mitchell show take place? I know I am! In my five bold predictions this offseason, I claimed that Mitchell could lead this backfield in fantasy points, while calling Mitchell the fourth-most talented running back from this rookie class, ahead of Sermon. In simple terms, this isn’t quite the “bizarre” circumstance that it’s being made out to be. Unheralded running backs make a presence for themselves all the time – it’s an athletically-based position where injuries lead to players getting opportunities they may have previously not had – and Mitchell now has his time to shine.
Based on the crazy FAAB bids for him this week, it looks I won’t be the only one aboard the Mitchell train this season, and, hopefully, for years to come. We’ll see where he ultimately ends up being valued in dynasty (perhaps his draft status gives him a slight discount), but he’s certainly someone I wouldn’t be looking to “sell-high on”, while he has a definite pathway to being an RB2 for the rest of the year in redraft formats. Now, it’s time to take a step back, and hope that Shanahan has found his next top running back, starting this Sunday in Philadelphia!