49ers camp battles: Elijah Mitchell is no longer alone running back

For three straight seasons, the 49ers’ leading rushers have been players who entered the NFL as undrafted free agents.

So, in the 2021 NFL Draft, it came as a bit of a surprise when the 49ers invested a third-round pick in Ohio State, leading Trey Sermon back.

Then the 49ers picked Louisiana-Lafayette, who ran Elijah Mitchell in the sixth round, before using another third-round pick that year on LSU who ran Ty Davis-Price.

The influx of young running backs in the last two drafts makes for interesting running back competition, as coach Kyle Shanahan seems determined to take a more backs-by-committee approach.

This is how the competition develops:

Elijah Mitchell

With Raheem Mostert lost for the season after carrying the ball twice in the 2021 season opener, the 49ers turned to Mitchell.

mitchell put together a strong rookie season, gaining 963 yards and five touchdowns while averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He ran the ball between 21 and 27 times in each of the last five regular season games he played.

But there are valid concerns about Mitchell’s durability. He missed six games due to injury.

In the postseason, Mitchell saw his average drop to just 3.1 yards per attempt. After a season in which he missed time due to shoulder, rib, finger and head injuries, his knee was “cleaned up.”

Mitchell has proven that he can be a very good three-down defender. The only question is whether he can withstand this kind of relentless punishment.

Trey sermon

Although the 49ers selected him in the third round, Sermon was unwilling to contribute as a rookie. His most productive game came in Week 4 when he gained 89 yards on 19 rushing attempts against the Seattle Seahawks.

Sermon has not smoothly adapted to performance in the 49ers’ outer zone scheme. He was a surprise inactive in week 1as Mitchell quickly passed him on the depth chart.

After an ankle injury sustained by Special Teams in Week 11 against the Minnesota Vikings, Sermon did not take the field to take offensive snaps again for the remainder of his rookie season.

The 49ers have demonstrated a knack for finding unheralded and undrafted running backs. Sermon was someone they identified as a unique talent, which makes his inability to contribute as a rookie all the more confusing.

And if the club had been really happy with Sermon’s development, they probably wouldn’t have had to pick another running back in the third round a year later.

Ty Davis-Price

When they called up Davis-Price, the 49ers had to figure out he had the talent to make an immediate contribution.

Davis-Price has good height (6-foot-1, 219 pounds), athleticism and speed. He hasn’t excelled as a reliable pass catcher, but he has the skills to be a tough runner between tackles on the first and second down.

He might also be the closest thing to a short-yard back the 49ers have on their list.

Davis-Price will compete with Sermon and Jeff Wilson Jr. to join Mitchell as one of the 49ers’ top two running backs.

Jeff Wilson Jr.

Wilson was out for the first half of the season a year ago after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee. When he got back into action, he clearly lacked explosiveness and didn’t show his usual punishing running style.

He re-signed as a free agent with the 49ers and looked much healthier during the team’s offseason program.

TIED TOGETHER: 49ers camp battles: Who starts safe alongside Ward?

Wilson led the 49ers in rushing in 2020, gaining 600 yards with an average of 4.8 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s also the 49ers’ top routerunner outside of the backfield.

JaMycal Hasty

Hasty faces a challenge this season to maintain his role as the team’s third-bottom defender.

Hasty featured in 11 games last season. He carried 16 times for 68 yards and a touchdown. He also caught 23 of the 29 passes thrown to him for 157 yards.

Jordan Mason, an undrafted rookie from Georgia Tech, will compete for a spot on the active roster or practice team during training camp.

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