On the final drive of San Francisco 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell’s college career, he handled three straight touches, picked up a first down that allowed the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns to maintain rhythm and run out the clock, and capping off a 172-yard performance in a 31–24 2020 SERVPRO First Responder Bowl victory.
The 5-foot-10, 200 pound back out of Erath, Louisiana will unfortunately be watching from the sidelines as his team finds itself standing on the same doormat as last season: the one that leads to the Super Bowl.
49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan, currently in his sixth season with San Francisco, has put on an offensive coaching masterclass in recent years. Shanahan has an inexplicable history of taking players with limited ability and getting them to play at the highest level in the NFL.
Shanahan has taken quarterbacks like Matt Schaub, Matt Ryan, Jimmy Garoppolo and now Brock Purdy, none of which are considered great talents, and led them to playoff victories, Pro Bowl nods, MVP trophies and Super Bowl appearances.
His reputation for utilizing running backs is nearly as impressive. In 2018, he was able to get undrafted tailback Matt Breida to produce over 1,000 scrimmage yards averaging six yards per touch, per Pro Football Reference.
A year later, he got both Breida and fellow undrafted back Raheem Mostert to produce over 600 and over 700 yards respectively while each averaging over five yards a carry, per PFR.
It was Mostert and yet another undrafted running back, Jeff Wilson, the next season who ran for 521 and 600 rushing yards respectively, both of which averaged at least 4.8 yards a pop, per PFR.
With Mitchell being a sixth round selection and Shanahan’s undrafted backfield carousel, the Ragin’ Cajuns alum was viewed as nothing more than another spoke on the wheel. Yet, after back-to-back NFC Conference Championship Game appearances in his first two seasons, Mitchell is as big a fixture in San Francisco’s offense as any other piece, including superstar running back Christian McCaffrey.
After leading the 49ers with 963 rushing yards in 11 games his rookie year, per PFR, San Francisco general manager John Lynch sent four draft picks over to the Carolina Panthers for McCaffrey, an All-Pro running/receiving hybrid specialist.
This was no fault of Mitchell’s, who injured his knee in this year’s season opener, returned and injured the same knee in Week 10, and watched his fellow backfield mate Wilson – another dispensable undrafted back in the 49ers’ eyes – get traded to Miami at the trade deadline.
Although, in two of San Francisco’s three most important games of the season, it was Mitchell, fresh off a knee injury, who plunged into the endzone twice to help seal the NFC’s number two seed in Week 18 and handled more carries than McCaffrey in the 49ers Divisional Round win-or-go-home victory over the Dallas Cowboys.
The draft grades given to Mitchell coming out of Louisiana were the same as just about any other running back projected to go between rounds five and seven.
Bleacher Report’s NFL Scouting Department viewed Mitchell as having a narrow base, causing him to easily be knocked down. They also noted he lacks the ability to change direction suddenly, making it hard for Mitchell to shake defenders.
NFL Analyst Lance Zierlein described Mitchell as someone who takes too much time accelerating after changing direction and lacks creativity running between defenders.
One thing to keep in mind about draft profiles is that they’re mostly for fan consumer purposes, as they don’t always hold much weight. Mitchell dispelled this by quietly crossing the century mark in rushing yards and finding the endzone in his first career NFL game.
Despite the battle-worn knee and the low profile out of college, Mitchell ends up in a prime position to halt the 49ers’ ferris wheel of tailbacks. Shanahan is the perfect schemer for Mitchell to flourish under on an immensely talented roster, should Lynch choose to keep him around of course.