The identity of the top running back on the 49ers’ roster for this season has never really been in question. However, the fight to determine the pecking order of Elijah Mitchell’s backups is one of the most compelling position battles taking place in training camp.
Any doubts over Mitchell’s status as RB1 should have been dispelled Friday when he took off for an 85-yard touchdown run during a move-the-ball period of practice.
Last year’s sixth-round pick is highly likely to be the lead tailback come Week 1, with RB Jeff Wilson Jr. having the edge to be his primary backup given his history of excelling when he has avoided injury.
Behind that pair, though, there is seemingly a three-way fight for the RB3 spot. While competitions for the third running back role are rarely viewed as overly important in a league dominated by the pass game, the brewing duel between Tyrion Davis-Price, Jordan Mason and Trey Sermon is one worthy of extremely close attention.
The 49ers ran the ball on 49 percent of their offensive snaps last season, according to Sharp Football Analysis, tied for the second-highest rate in the NFL and well above the league average of 42 percent.
It isn’t breaking news that the Kyle Shanahan-led Niners are heavily reliant on the run game, and it’s also no secret that they have struggled to keep their running backs on the field.
Running back is not a position that lends itself to durability and the 49ers saw both Mitchell and self-titled ‘wide back’ Deebo Samuel miss time due to injury last season.
Simply put, the Niners need strong depth in the backfield to help them keep Mitchell and Samuel – their most important offensive player last season – fresh and maximize their chances of being healthy for the entirety of what San Francisco hopes will be another deep playoff run.
The 49ers’ approach to achieving that aim has been to invest in a pair of rookies, Davis-Price and Mason, who have the frame to absorb the kind of punishment that wide receiver Samuel arguably took too regularly in his All-Pro season last year.
Third-round pick Davis-Price is a physically imposing downhill runner who is listed at 6-foot-1 and 219 pounds. He possesses impressive contact balance and power that should be a significant boost to a team that struggled mightily in short-yardage situations last year. Additionally, he has the decisiveness and burst that are key to backs succeeding in a scheme built around inside and outside zone runs.
Davis-Price has struggled at times during camp but has progressed to a point that saw him earn first-team reps on Saturday. Mason, an undrafted free agent, at 5-11 and 223 pounds is of a very similar mold. He’s earned praise for his physicality, speed and power.
Mason has seemingly put himself in a strong position to make the roster. However, Sermon’s strong camp may complicate his path to a place on the 53-man group.
Last year’s third-round pick spent his rookie season predominantly in the Shanahan doghouse, but has returned for his sophomore year with extra weight added and a better feel for when to attack open running lanes.
“Trey sees it [the holes] good. And it’s just about hitting it without any hesitation,” Shanahan said on Friday. “Those holes in the NFL close a lot faster than they do in college. And I think that was something Trey learned the hard way his first year. And he’s got the film, he’s got the experiences that happened and you want to see how he is the first day you put pads on and we didn’t have to remind him, which was cool.
“That means he learned a lot from last year and he’s been thinking about it all offseason. He’s built his body to handle it. And most importantly you can tell his mindset’s there and we’ve seen it in practice. And can’t wait to see it in these games coming up.”
With added mass and a more decisive playing style, Sermon may perhaps be the frontrunner in this competition as a back with a well-rounded skill set featuring elusiveness in the open field and pass protection upside.
The 49ers require backfield depth to protect a starting running back who played through broken ribs last season and an ultra-versatile offensive weapon to whom they just committed $71.5 million. On top of that, they need added thump to improve their success rate on short-yardage runs. The Niners ranked 29th in success rate on runs of three yards or fewer on third and fourth down last year, per Sharp Football.
Though the Niners’ running back room is famously difficult to judge, the back who wins this competition can expect to be called upon to help change their fortunes in such situations.
Shanahan has consistently drafted backs high during his 49ers tenure with little success while finding several UDFA gems at the position. The fact that this battle pits two third-rounders against another UDFA in Mason adds another layer of intrigue to the competition.
While it is the dual-threat skill set of quarterback Trey Lance is the X-factor that could take a consistently productive run game to new heights, this fight between three backs working under a much dimmer spotlight will also have a significant say in determining how brightly a likely even more diverse run game shines in 2022.