Looking at ways 49ers' RB Elijah Mitchell can make the leap in the 2022 season

Nicholas McGee
The Niners Wire

The star of the 49ers’ 2021 draft class was not their headline-making first pick, but the man they took with their final selection, running back Elijah Mitchell, who enjoyed a superb rookie season in the San Francisco backfield.

However, sustained long-term success in the Kyle Shanahan offense can be tough for running backs given the Niners head coach’s track record of using and getting production out of a plethora of players at the position.

Mitchell’s challenge in 2022 will be to build on a hugely encouraging first NFL season and make the leap to establish himself as the clear-cut number one in a running backs room that is typically crowded.

He has Jeff Wilson Jr, Trey Sermon, JaMycal Hasty and rookies Tyrion Davis-Price and Jordan Mason for company on the RB depth chart heading into training camp. Shanahan will surely not hesitate to distribute the carries elsewhere should Mitchell underperform.

San Francisco 49ers running back Elijah Mitchell (25) runs for a touchdown during a game last season against the Detroit Lions.

So how does Mitchell not only avoid a slump, but take the next step towards becoming a Pro Bowl player in his second year in the league?

Staying on the field

The first answer is an obvious one. Mitchell finished with 963 yards, 37 shy of the 1,000-yard mark. Had he not missed six games through injury, Mitchell would have comfortably cleared that mark.

Running back is a position that lends itself to injuries and the fact the Niners invested in further depth at that spot by drafting Davis-Price may help Mitchell avoid too much wear and tear in 2022 by lightening his workload.

Mitchell averaged 4.7 yards per carry and 87.5 yards per game in 2021, numbers that would have had him on track for close to 1,500 yards on the ground had he played a full season.

Yet if he is to produce at the same level while potentially taking on fewer carries per game in 2022, Mitchell will need to improve his efficiency, and there is a clear way through which he can do that.

Avoiding early contact

Mitchell finished the year 14th in Football Outsiders DYAR, which measures total value, and 19th in DVOA, a gauge of value per play, out of 50 qualifying players at running back.

While he was well inside the top half of NFL in both metrics, there is clear room for improvement. His Success Rate of 50 percent was 30th among qualifying backs. When a runner’s DVOA is higher than his Success Rate, it indicates that he was reliant on long explosive runs while frequently getting stuffed behind the line of scrimmage.

The Niners were 14th in stuffed percentage last year, seeing their back tackled behind the line of scrimmage 17 percent of the time. Though those numbers do not fully reflect the assessment that Mitchell spent too much time getting hit in the backfield, his yards before and after contact numbers are those of a back who consistently had to evade penetrating defenders to gain his yards.

Mitchell – per Pro Football Reference – was fifth in the NFL with 2.5 yards after contact per attempt. He was 31st with 2.2 yards before contact per rush. He will have his sights set on improving the yardage before contact and staying in the league’s upper echelon in yards after contact.

But his success in achieving those dual aims is not solely contingent on his own performance, and the switch to Lance at quarterback may play a critical role.

Mitchell faced eight or more defenders in the box on 39.61 percent of his carries, per NextGen Stats, as teams committed to trying slow down San Francisco’s run game without worrying about Jimmy Garoppolo throwing downfield consistently.

With Lance on the field, teams will surely have to respect the deep ball more often. Still, even if Mitchell does face lighter boxes in 2022, he will be somewhat dependent on the offensive line to boost his yards before contact numbers.

That O-Line will rely on two new starters in 2022 in center Jake Brendel and second-year left guard Aaron Banks. For his own production and the overall performance of the 49er rushing game, that pair must excel early and allow Mitchell more opportunities to burst through run lanes without quickly being contacted by a defender.

The offensive line’s success in pass protection will have a significant bearing on Mitchell’s hopes of making strides in another facet of his game.

Pass-catching progress

Mitchell was extremely efficient as a pass-catcher in his rookie season. He was targeted just 20 times but did a lot with the balls that came his way.

He caught 19 of those targets for 137 yards at an average of 7.2 yards per reception and one touchdown.

His DVOA as a receiver was 41.2 percent. Had Mitchell caught enough balls to be listed among qualifying players, that would have put him fifth among running backs.

With the 49ers likely to be more aggressive going deep with Trey Lance under center, it is no given Mitchell will see a bump in targets in 2022.

Yet if the offensive line can hold up on a regular basis, that will theoretically allow the Niners to stop wasting Mitchell in protection and get him out on a route as the fifth man in the passing concept to offer a safety net for Lance.

There is little reason the elusiveness, contact balance and burst Mitchell has displayed as a runner out of the backfield cannot translate to the passing game, in which he should benefit from Lance’s aggressiveness opening up underneath areas where he can make an impact as a pass-catcher.

Mitchell has a skill set excellently suited to the Shanahan system and theoretically could have even more space to work with in an offense built around the ability to get playmakers in the open field. He is in a superb situation to make the leap to a Pro Bowl-caliber season, it is his durability and the play of a much-changed offensive line that may decide whether he takes advantage.