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Each week during the 2021 season, we'll examine our NFL draft steal of the week — a first-, second- or third-year player whose NFL success has surpassed where they were drafted. We'll try to look back at the why and how of where they were selected and what we thought of that prospect prior to the draft.
Louisiana-Lafayette RB Elijah Mitchell
San Francisco 49ers
5-foot-10, 201 pounds
2021 NFL draft: Round 6, No. 194 overall
There are always Week 1 lineup surprises. But it shocked some fantasy footballers when the 49ers activated 2021 sixth-round running back Elijah Mitchell in the opener over their third-round back, Trey Sermon.
Head coach Kyle Shanahan said Mitchell was ahead of Sermon. Stranger things have happened, of course. But it was even more notable when starter Raheem Mostert suffered an injury early in the win over the Detroit Lions. Mostert was placed on injured reserve. He’s expected to be done for the season.
Mitchell was thrust into a featured role, carrying the ball 19 times for 104 yards and a 38-yard TD, becoming the fantasy football add of the week. Since 1999, only 11 other rookie backs have topped the 100-yard rushing mark in their first NFL game — and the others all were drafted in Rounds 1-3.
So why wasn't Mitchell picked higher?
How we viewed Elijah Mitchell as a prospect
Mitchell was a 2-star Rivals recruit despite finishing as Erath (La.) High School’s all-time leading rusher — 4,045 yards and 50 TDs on only 457 carries. But an injury his senior season left his recruiting trail cold.
As a true freshman, Mitchell ran for 273 yards and four TDs in his five games, limited by a foot injury. That set him up for a big sophomore season, starting 13 games and totaling 1,334 yards and 16 TDs from scrimmage. Despite splitting carries for two years with Trey Ragas (now on the Las Vegas Raiders) and Raymond Calais (on the Los Angeles Rams’ IR), Mitchell carved out a major role in Louisiana’s run-heavy attack.
Mitchell caught only 26 passes for 223 yards and one TD over his final two seasons, and his 2020 numbers dipped. But Mitchell was invited to the Senior Bowl and entered the draft as an established, productive back, yet with relatively little tread (576 college touches).
We viewed Mitchell as a hard-running, early-down back best suited for a timeshare, ideally coupled with a third-down option. Mitchell's surprising athleticism (he ran a 4.33 40 and vertical jumped 37.5 inches at his pro day), along with tackle-breaking ability and toughness as a runner, gave him intrigue. He also displayed good ball security.
Yet his limited value as a receiver and so-so lateral quickness curbed that appeal. Mitchell wasn’t a creative or dynamic runner, more relying on force, determination and leg drive to gain extra yards. He also ran upright, seldom was a workhorse and had health concerns (two college surgeries).
Why did Mitchell slip in the draft?
Mitchell was our No. 159 prospect overall, regardless of position, with a draft grade of 5.53 (possible contributor). Based on that, we didn’t view him as a major draft slider. Running back is a position that tends to be valued lower than others.
He was the 10th true back selected in 2021 in a thinner RB crop. In the 2020 draft, 14 backs went in the first 172 picks. In 2019, 17 backs were taken in the first 194 picks. By that measure — with a dash of Week 1 bias — Mitchell looks like potentially very good value.
That the 49ers drafted Mitchell after taking Sermon more than 100 picks earlier is interesting. That the 49ers traded up 39 selections to take Sermon, giving up an extra fourth-rounder, makes this situation even more fascinating.
It's possible that the 49ers had such a good grade on Mitchell that they couldn't resist passing. If so, that's a smart draft approach.
Can Mitchell keep up his Week 1 pace? After all, Shanahan is notorious for doling out touches to as many as four different backs.
But with Mostert out and Sermon behind Mitchell and JaMycal Hasty (for now), it would be surprising for Shanahan to suddenly veer from Mitchell. Sermon should get back in the coaches’ good graces ... but when?
At the very least, Mitchell has been thrust into an excellent situation — on a team that's committed to running the ball. Perhaps Mitchell's contributions in the passing game won’t be huge in Year 1, but it appears that the 49ers made a smart move doubling up at a position that other teams don’t appear to value as highly.