Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

49ers RB Elijah Mitchell continues to impress with surprisingly productive rookie season

Nov 28, 2021 at 7:41 PM--

San Francisco 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell continued the highly impressive rookie season that nobody saw coming on Sunday, rushing for 133 yards and one touchdown on 27 carries in his team's thrilling 34-26 win over the Minnesota Vikings.

It was the fourth 100-yard game of the season for Mitchell, and making it more impressive is the fact he did it less than two weeks after having surgery for a fractured finger (November 16). It's the latest chapter in a performance that has made Mitchell the best rookie on the 49ers roster, which is something nobody could have predicted from the University of Louisiana product when they made him their final selection in the 2021 NFL Draft at pick 194 overall in Round 6.

The selection of Mitchell was actually a bit of a head-scratcher at the time. The 49ers traded up earlier in the draft to select Ohio State running back Trey Sermon in Round 3, adding to a group that already had Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson, and JaMycal Hasty. But the injury history of that group proved to the 49ers that it wouldn't hurt to add more depth at the position, which turned out to be sound logic considering each of those running backs wound up missing games this season, with Mostert suffering a season-ending knee injury in the season opener against the Detroit Lions.

Fortunately, that lesser-known running back the 49ers added in the late rounds turned out to be one of the biggest steals of the 2021 NFL Draft—and a godsend for an offense that needed someone to deliver at the running back position after Mostert's injury.

Mitchell now has 693 yards in 10 games this season and is well within reach of surpassing 1,000 yards as a rookie if he stays healthy. The 49ers' decision to call his number over Sermon early in the year came as a surprise to outside observers, but Mitchell proved to the 49ers since the beginning that he could be trusted to carry on the role. He continued to show that over the past two weeks when he was honest about whether or not he was healthy enough to take the field.

"You got a gut of it through training camp, just watching it every day in practice," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters after the win over the Vikings on Sunday. "Then when Raheem went down on the second play versus Detroit, just watching him go in right away and just no hesitation—looked exactly how he did in practice. What he did the next week versus Philly and playing through a number of those injuries he had, nothing's too big for him. And he's honest too—that's why he didn't play last week, because he couldn't fully protect himself. He was close, but he couldn't. This week, as the week went, when he said he was good, he means it. It earns your trust."

Mitchell's first 100-yard game of the season came when he was called upon against the Lions, and since then he's proven to be no fluke. He's gained the respect of his teammates along the way, including tight end George Kittle, who showed up to his postgame media session after the win over the Vikings wearing an Elijah Mitchell T-shirt.

"I think he just loves football," Kittle said Sunday. "He shows up every day. He works. He's there every day when rehab's supposed to start. He's on time for everything. He does everything he's supposed to do. I think because he does everything he's supposed to do, it just sets him up for success. And that's what you want to see in a rookie."

Among Mitchell's standout traits this season have been his vision and his ability to fall forward for extra yards. His vision has been what has stood out to Shanahan over his other strengths.

"I'd say that's his number one attribute," Shanahan said. "He's good in other areas, but he seems to hit the right spot almost every time."

Mitchell's vision and extra yardage have contributed to his 4.9 yards per carry average this season, which ranks in the top 15 in the NFL. His production has helped the 49ers round into form offensively and become a dominant running team after an inconsistent start to the season.

"If you just watch him, when he runs, he runs downhill," Kittle said. "A play that's blocked for three yards ends up being seven yards. A play that's blocked for one yard ends up being four yards. When he gets hit, he always falls forward. In the NFL, as a running back, you have to be able to break arm tackles, you have to be able fall forward. If you get pushed back on some of those—second and longs, all that type of stuff. He just runs his tail off, he's very physical, and he makes quick decisions. He doesn't second guess himself. He runs downhill, which is what you need to do in our offense."

Mitchell credits running backs coach Bobby Turner with constantly teaching his players to never stop on a play.

"It just starts in the [running back] room," Mitchell said Sunday. "That's just something that coach Bobby T expresses a lot—Keep driving and protecting the ball. It just starts with the mindset, and we always talk about that."

The 49ers ran the ball 39 times for over 200 yards against the Vikings, most of which came from Mitchell, even though he was wearing a plastic covering on his finger. His efforts were part of a running attack that averaged over 40 carries and helped dominate the time of possession in each of the past three games (all 49ers wins).

"Really I've got to give it up to the O-Line and the receivers on the edge and Kyle and Mike [offensive coordinator Mike McDaniel] calling good plays, so it all plays out really good," Mitchell said.

The key from here will be to make sure Mitchell stays healthy enough to lead the running game through the upcoming stretch run. He's already had his share of bumps and bruises this season, so the 49ers are constantly keeping his health in mind when giving him the type of workload he had against the Vikings. But they won't plan on going easy on him as long as he keeps producing.

"We're not going to ever be sitting there in a game and be worrying about that totally, but we're aware of all that stuff," Shanahan said. "I think we do mix it around, but we usually go with the guy who we think is most effective on a play."

Mitchell is making it a point to take measures to remain in good health, which he'll have to do once again in the coming days.

"You're definitely going to be sore after 30 carries, but it's all about taking care of your body," Mitchell said. "That's something I've been trying to do and just ask the vets and stuff about that. So I've been doing a very good job of taking care of my body, even after the game too."

Mitchell appears certain to be a significant part of the 49ers offense for the remainder of 2021 and likely well beyond. And chances are Sunday won't be the last time he'll have a performance worthy enough of Kittle wearing his face on a T-shirt.

"I think he deserves it today," Kittle said. "He had a good one."

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