Elijah Mitchell Fantasy Analysis: Was your waiver claim on 49ers RB worth it?

Should you put a waiver claim on 49ers RB Elijah Mitchell after a sensational debut, and what could you expect for fantasy moving forward?

With the first week of the NFL and fantasy football season in the books, standout performers like San Francisco 49ers rookie RB Elijah Mitchell will be hot names for managers placing waiver wire claims in preparation for Week 2. But does Mitchell’s play on Sunday indicate a trend fantasy managers should jump on, banking on future success?

Elijah Mitchell shines in fantasy debut

It’s one thing to have a good game in the NFL as a rookie. It’s a whole different ball game when that player is a sixth-round pick who was hardly expected to see the field. Or at least, so we thought. But Mitchell and head coach Kyle Shanahan had other plans.

After watching starting RB Raheem Mostert go down to a knee injury after only 2 carries, Mitchell took advantage of his opportunity. The rookie would go on to carry the ball 19 times for 104 yards and a touchdown against the Lions and end the day as the RB15 in PPR formats, totaling 16.4 fantasy points. 

It was a strong enough performance to put him in the driver’s seat to likely start next week’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles. But is this sustainable? Or was it merely a flash in the pan brought on by odd circumstances?

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Trey Sermon was a surprise inactive on Sunday

Mitchell was not the rookie RB we were expecting to see on the field on Sunday. That would have been third-round draft pick Trey Sermon. Yet, he was a surprise healthy scratch before the game.

In a post-game conference call, Shanahan said despite both RBs dealing with some injuries during the summer, Mitchell simply looked better and won the RB2 job for Week 1.

“[Sermon] battled some injuries throughout training camp. So did Elijah [Mitchell]. [JaMycal] Hasty got some opportunities in the preseason and looked good. Elijah came in and looked a little bit ahead of him in the limited play that he got, and no one was passing up Raheem [Mostert].

But fantasy managers and 49ers fans should expect to see Sermon in the lineup for Week 2, according to Shanahan.

“Now we’re into Week 2 and he’s up regardless, and I expect him to come in and play at a high level and keep getting better. There is a reason why we drafted him. We have a lot of confidence in him.”

Both Mitchell and Sermon will compete for the starting role

While Mitchell’s ascension was a welcome surprise for many, it came at a steep price. On Monday [September 13], David Lombardi of The Athletic reported that Mostert would be out roughly eight weeks with a chipped cartilage issue in his knee. Shanahan subsequently announced that Mostert was headed to the injured reserve.

Well, that would have been the plan, but things change quickly in the NFL. Mostert announced on his social media account that he will undergo season-ending knee surgery after consulting with multiple doctors.

Injuries have plagued Mostert’s career. He’s played in just 45 of 65 regular-season games since 2017, only once playing in all 16. Last season, Mostert missed eight games with a high ankle sprain.

With Mostert’s season over, it will fall on Mitchell, Sermon, and Hasty to lead San Francisco’s backfield in what has traditionally been one of the better units for fantasy. Since taking over the 49ers in 2017, Shanahan’s offenses have averaged 441.5 rushing attempts per season. In 2020 alone, a 49ers RB finished as an RB2 or better in 11 of 16 games.

Should fantasy managers put a waiver claim on Elijah Mitchell, or was this a one-off performance?

While I would love to sit here and say that Mitchell will be a bell-cow RB, that’s simply not the case. That’s not Shanahan’s M.O. 

Since taking over the 49ers, the last RB to receive over 65% of the snaps was Carlos Hyde in 2017 (71%). Since then, Kyle Juszczyk led the way with 63% in 2018, and over the last two seasons, no one crested the 50% mark. In 2020, three RBs recorded between 41-43%.

Nevertheless, that does not mean I think you should avoid Mitchell. In fact, quite the opposite — he needs to be a waiver priority this week. Mitchell looked decisive behind the 49ers’ OL and showed the explosive traits that wowed many during his time at Louisiana-Lafayette.

Mitchell could be worth the investment

There’s no question that Sermon and Hasty will get some looks, but Mitchell has the leg up and has earned the first crack at the RB1 role in what is a very fantasy-friendly offense. There is no denying that the Week 1 matchup likely aided in his performance. After all, it’s not like the 49ers will get to face the Lions — 32nd vs. RBs in fantasy last season — every week. 

This offense is scratching the surface on its potential and only will go up to 11 once Trey Lance is under center. Based on how things currently shake out, Mitchell is a low-end RB2/flex play moving forward. Investing your FAAB or waiver claim on a player early in the season is your best shot at a massive ROI — just look at James Robinson’s 2020 campaign if you need a refresher.

I would rather be wrong about a player on my bench than be wrong about them and watch them go off in my opponent’s starting fantasy lineup. Don’t blow the bank, but don’t be a Scrooge McDuck either.

Tommy Garrett is a Fantasy Analyst for Pro Football Network and is a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA). You can read more of his work here and follow him at @TommygarrettPFN on Twitter.

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