Can a late round find from the San Francisco 49ers emerge into the Pro Bowl stratosphere this season?
After watching Raheem Mostert become lost for the season with an ACL tear, Trey Sermon battling his own ailments and the 49ers needing to slide wide receiver Deebo Samuel into the backfield, Elijah Mitchell went from sixth round selection at No. 194 overall to becoming the lead-rusher of Kyle Shanahan’s ground-based attack.
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Mitchell, in 10 starts, went on to put together a team-best 963 yards and scored 5 touchdowns. He added five 100-yard games including 104 in his NFL debut in Week 1. Now, moving forward, there are a trio of questions by many analysts.
One: What type of production is Mitchell capable of?
Two: Was Mitchell the product of a “system” installed or is he truly capable of becoming the featured back moving forward?
And three: Could the former Louisiana Ragin’ Cajun earn this two-worded label in 2022 — Pro Bowler?
Analyst Puts Mitchell on This List
Nick Shook of nfl.com unveiled his list of the one potential first time Pro Bowler on each NFC team.
Shook went ahead and wrote down Mitchell’s name as that possibility, writing:
“The 49ers enjoyed quality production from Mitchell as a rookie, with the former Louisiana star becoming San Francisco’s bell-cow back and averaging close to five yards per carry. Add in the experience gained from 2021 to a Kyle Shanahan-led offense that can be counted on to maximize running back potential, and you have a player who should take the next step. If that comes in 2022 — and if the 49ers replicate their success from last season — Mitchell’s name is going to become a popular one.”
Quite the prediction for someone who was, to reiterate, the 10th pick of the sixth round and saw eight different running backs get taken ahead of him.
Mitchell was one of three running backs to make the cut by Shook — joining Tony Pollard of the Dallas Cowboys and versatile return man Kene Nwangwu of the Minnesota Vikings.
Can Mitchell Thrive in Deeper, Healthier Backfield?
Again, Mitchell emerged in a backfield decimated by injuries last season. But the production was instant.
Along with leading the team in rushing yards, Mitchell additionally ranked in the top five in the explosive runs category and carried the ball without losing it on the field.
Mitchell also gave Trey Lance an extra passing option in Lance’s second start:
But now, this 49ers RB unit is expecting to look different once training camp arrives on July 26 at the 49ers’ SAP Performance Facility.
For starters, Mostert is off to Miami. But Sermon is healthy. JaMycal Hasty also returns. And, the 49ers selected Ty Davis-Price with the 93rd overall pick in the 2022 draft — with the LSU star likely to handle the load that Samuel was doing from November to the NFC title game.
It’s shaping up to be harder for Mitchell to hit 20 or more carries each week. As it was, Mitchell carried the ball between 21 to 27 times in six of his final eight games played including playoffs. He, too, was inactive for four of those games between the span of November 15 to the NFC title game.
Yet, there has been 49ers who skyrocketed in their second season in the backfield and improved one of their numbers, boding well for Mitchell this season.
Frank Gore went from 608 yards in his rookie season to a conference-leading 1,695 in his second season, culminating in his first Pro Bowl. Roger Craig improved his total yards from scrimmage in his second season in the league in 1984. Ricky Watters scored more rushing touchdowns in his second NFL season with 10 in 1993.
There’s some history on Mitchell’s side. Now there’s an analyst believing he’s capable of earning a Pro Bowl nod.