Assessing The 49ers Options At Running Back Following Mitchell’s Injury
It was a humbling weekend for the 49ers, losing on the road to the Chicago Bears amidst a monsoon of rain that left Solider field in torrid conditions.
From the start of the second half, the 49ers looked to be the lesser of two sides, giving up three straight touchdowns and 19 unanswered points left San Francisco sour heading home with a losing record. However, the biggest blow to the team came in the final minutes of the second half when starting running back Elijah Mitchell went down with an apparent knee injury. Mitchell was ruled out immediately for the rest of the game, seen sporting a heavy-duty knee brace after Sunday’s contest.
Saw #49ers RB Elijah Mitchell leaving the locker room with a substantial brace on his right leg. He was not bending it as he was slowly making his way to the bus, but he was not on crutches.
— Jennifer Lee Chan (@jenniferleechan) September 11, 2022
Looking like an extended absence was coming, Shanahan confirmed the news Monday that Mitchell sprained his MCL and would be heading for the short-term IR.
“He was pretty down,” Shanahan said Monday via conference call. “We’re down for him. You know Elijah went through a lot last year, full of documented injuries he had. He had really worked hard this offseason, he was feeling really good going into that game and man I thought he looked really good before he got hurt. Just unfortunate hit that he had, trying to tell him to ‘keep his head up’, anybody who would have got caught in that situation would have gotten hurt.”
Mitchell was on his way to having a great day in the first half, mustering up six carries for 41 yards before getting hurt. The second-year tailback racked up 1,100 scrimmage yards and six TDs during his rookie year in 2021.
Looking at a timeline that keeps him out of action until mid-November, the running back room of San Francisco goes from one of the deepest on the team to being thin in a few hours.
So who could theoretically replace Mitchell’s production?
The 49ers kept three other RBs on the roster: Veteran Jeff Wilson Jr., and rookies Jordan Mason and Ty Davis-Price. Throw in fullback Kyle Juzskyck and that’s four capable ballcarriers for Shanahan’s rushing attack.
Wilson is the likely candidate to get the bulk share of the touches out of the backfield, but only mustered a lackluster 2.4 yards per carry Sunday in Chicago.
Shanahan could also go to the rookie backs in Mason and Davis-Price, but we know how the 49ers head coach feels about rookies who aren’t ready for the spotlight (i.e. Trey Sermon’s release). Neither rookie played a snap on offense in Chicago, possibly because they aren’t up to speed in pass protection, a key component of keeping Lance safe.
Others think it’s time to convert “wideback” Deebo Samuel fully over to the position of halfback during Mitchell’s absence. The recently-paid Samuel was dangerous pout of the backfield in Week 1, rushing for 52 yards on eight carries, including a huge touchdown run that laid the smackdown on Bears safety Eddie Jackson.
DEEBO SAMUEL TRUCK STICK TD 😳
— PFF (@PFF) September 11, 2022
“Samuel was a key cog in the 49ers’ rushing attack in 2021 due to a need and lack of depth, and I think the 49ers should rely on him while they bring Davis-Price and Mason up to speed. Shanahan clearly trusts Samuel with the ball in key positions, and he’s made defenders look silly over and over again,” Akash Anavarathan of Niners Nation wrote this week.
“I think the use of the split-back motion, bringing Deebo Samuel into the backfield with another back (Kyle Juszczyk, for example) with Trey Lance, has been a preferred formation for Shanahan. It creates different mesh points and running angles that make it even harder for defenses to bring down Samuel.”
Personally, I like a combination of all three options.
Shanahan and the coaching staff have been at their best when they use multiple players out of the backfield. Additionally, each of the three true halfbacks remaining offers something different to the rushing attack. Wilson can be the change-of-pace/pass-catching threat out of the backfield, Mason can do the LeGarrette Blount role, come in for a goal-line or short yardage push for the first down, and Davis-Price could supplement all of the little things in-between.
Samuel will likely continue to see close to ten touches, but with a thin receiving corps behind Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings, can the 49ers afford another injury to a semi-injury-prone player? I’m not so sure, which is why the 49ers’ head coach will need his rookie RBs to grow up fast in a trial-by-fire approach.
“They’re two talented players who we think can help us a lot running the ball, but they gotta grow up fast,” Shanahan said. “With injuries and stuff, they’re going to have more opportunities to get some carries and things like that obviously, but they got to grow up and get this experience while on the run.”
UPDATE: 49ers sign veteran RB Marlon Mack to the practice squad Tuesday, first reported by ESPN’s Adam Schefter.