For three consecutive seasons, the 49ers’ leading rushers were players who entered the NFL as undrafted free agents.
So it was a bit of a surprise in the 2021 NFL Draft when the 49ers invested a third-round pick in Ohio State running back Trey Sermon.
Then, the 49ers selected Louisiana-Lafayette running back Elijah Mitchell in the sixth round before using another third-round choice this year on LSU running back Ty Davis-Price.
The influx of young running backs over the past two drafts makes for what should be interesting competition at running back, as coach Kyle Shanahan appears determined to deploy more of a backs-by-committee approach.
Here is how the competition shapes up:
When Raheem Mostert was lost for the season after carrying the ball two times 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 a carry. He ran the ball anywhere from 21 to 27 times in each of the final five regular-season games in which he played.
But there are legitimate concerns about Mitchell’s durability. He missed six games due to injuries.
In the postseason, Mitchell saw his average drop to just 3.1 yards an attempt. He had a “clean-up” procedure on his knee after a season in which he missed time due to shoulder, ribs, finger and head injuries.
Mitchell proved he can be a very good three-down back. The only question is whether he can withstand that kind of relentless punishment.
Although the 49ers selected him in the third round, Sermon was not ready 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 did not make a smooth adjustment to performing in the 49ers’ outside-zone scheme. He was a surprise inactive in Week 1, as Mitchell quickly surpassed him on the depth chart.
After an ankle injury sustained on special teams in Week 11 against the Minnesota Vikings, Sermon did not step on the field again for any offensive snaps for the remainder of his rookie season.
The 49ers have shown a talent for finding unheralded and undrafted running backs. Sermon was somebody they identified as a unique talent, which makes his inability to contribute as a rookie all the more perplexing.
And if the club were truly pleased with Sermon’s development, they likely would have felt no need to select another running back in the third round one year later.
The 49ers had to figure when they drafted Davis-Price that he has the talent to make an immediate contribution.
Davis-Price has good size (6-foot-1, 219 pounds), athleticism and speed. He has not distinguished himself as a reliable pass-catcher but he has the skills to be a tough between-the-tackles runner on first and second downs.
He might also be the closest thing to a short-yardage back that the 49ers have on their roster.
Davis-Price will be in competition with Sermon and Jeff Wilson Jr. to join Mitchell as one of the 49ers’ top two running backs.
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 returned to action, he was clearly lacking explosiveness and did not exhibit his usual punishing running style.
He re-signed with the 49ers as a free agent and looked much healthier during the team’s offseason program.
Wilson led the 49ers in rushing in 2020, gaining 600 yards with a 4.8-yard average with seven touchdowns. He is also the 49ers’ best route-runner out of the backfield.
Hasty faces a challenge this season to hold onto his role as the team’s third-down back.
Hasty appeared in 11 games last season. He carried 16 times for 68 yards and a touchdown. He also caught 23 of the 29 passes thrown his way for 157 yards.
Jordan Mason, an undrafted rookie from Georgia Tech, will compete during training camp for a spot on the active roster or practice squad.
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