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Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

How Kyle Shanahan evaluated the rookie seasons of Trey Lance, Elijah Mitchell

Mar 29, 2022 at 7:56 PM--

The rookie seasons of quarterback Trey Lance and running back Elijah Mitchell took two very different paths. In last year's draft, the San Francisco 49ers selected Lance with the No. 3 overall pick. Mitchell was the team's final selection, a sixth-round pick, and the 194th player drafted.

Lance played 178 offensive snaps during the 2021 season. He started two games but spent the rest of the season as Jimmy Garoppolo's backup. Mitchell became the 49ers' featured running back following an injury to Raheem Mostert. He was in on 441 offensive snaps.

Both players are expected to be significant contributors in 2022.

"Elijah really came through for us this year," head coach Kyle Shanahan said Tuesday at the NFL owners meetings in Florida. "When we lost Raheem on the third play of the year—he was such a big part of us heading up to that. Then Elijah stepping in as a rookie, battled through injuries throughout the year but was able to put together a real strong year.

"If he can find a way to have a good offseason, take a step forward in the passing game and in the run game, and hopefully find a way ... to take care of his body and hopefully avoid some of those [injuries], he's only going to get better."

Mitchell and Shanahan are on the same page. In February, the running back joined KNBR and shared his offseason goals. Not only did Mitchell say he wants to build up strength now that he knows how rigorous a 17-game NFL season is, but he wants to become a versatile part of Shanahan's offense.

"I definitely want to improve on making guys miss in the open field. That's one thing," Mitchell said. "And also, being able to not just be in the backfield, [but] trying to line up out wide, being a receiver. So this offseason, that's one thing I'm going to be working on, running routes and stuff."

Mitchell was inactive for six games last season due to injuries. He dealt with shoulder, rib, finger, and knee injuries. The running back even missed time due to a concussion. Still, the 49ers head coach feels the team had better luck in 2021 keeping its running backs healthy than in previous campaigns.

"[T]his was the first year we only went through a few backs," Shanahan said. "Every other year, I think we've been through at least four with injuries. So we haven't always had the best luck there, but we've had a number of guys step up, so it's been all right."

While the 49ers had little choice but to force Mitchell into quickly becoming a prominent part of the offense, the team was—for the most part—able to take its time with Lance. Piling a significant workload on the shoulders of a rookie running back is one thing. Asking a rookie to lead the entire offense without fully grasping the system is another.

Shanahan was asked to evaluate Lance's rookie season and his progress.

"Your first year, you don't just gradually get better," Shanahan responded. "You go up and down, you hit some walls in the year, and you learn how to fight through them. I thought Trey, just going through his first NFL season, especially after only having one college season and missing that whole last year because of COVID, you go through that whole draft process, there's so much football, and you can see it on the rookies. They get to November and they just can't believe the season is still going.

"But then you watch them battle through it, and the way Trey finished in December, being able to come in and get us a huge win versus Houston. If we wouldn't have got that, we wouldn't have been able to get in the playoffs. And I think he really finished strong. It was really good for him to see the ebb and flow of an NFL season and how you just have to keep grinding and keep battling."

Shanahan previously admitted that he was close to considering a quarterback change midway through the season after the team had lost four straight. Then things turned around.

"When we were sitting there at 3-5, and him watching how rough it is, and to see us get over that hump and fight through it, I think that was really cool for him and a lot of the rookies to see, really, what an NFL season is about," Shanahan said.

While Shanahan admits that he hasn't spoken to Garoppolo much this offseason, he speaks to Lance regularly. Read into that however you wish. It's clear Shanahan is keeping tabs on his 21-year-old quarterback. The coach shared the advice he gave Lance after last season. In addition, he provided some insight on how Lance is preparing for the upcoming season—one in which he'll likely be the starter.

"I wanted him to get away for a little bit. He needed some rest, I thought," Shanahan said. "Trey's a guy I talk to all the time. He's down in Orange County right now, working with a bunch of guys, throwing all the time. I think Nate's (Sudfeld) down there with him. I just talked to (Brandon) Aiyuk. I think he went down there last week. But Trey's always working.

"He's got some guys he's with that really focus on the throwing part and the mechanics of that, which they work with a lot of NFL guys. Jimmy's been down there in the past. Trey's going to be down there, I think, until we start up OTAs."


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