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49ers' late-round rookies must already fill some big shoes

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Elijah Mitchell

WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va -- The early indications are the 49ers added players with bright futures at running back, cornerback and the offensive line in the 2021 NFL Draft.

But the players who set themselves up to be big contributors during their rookie seasons are not necessarily the three players at those positions the 49ers figured would step into immediate roles when they were selected.

The biggest surprise is running back Elijah Mitchell, whom the 49ers selected with their final pick of the draft. The 49ers were not anticipating selecting two running backs, but Mitchell was deemed too good to pass up in the sixth round.

Mitchell gained 104 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries in the 49ers’ season-opening 41-33 victory over the Detroit Lions after Raheem Mostert exited with a knee injury.

Mostert announced on Tuesday he has opted for season-ending knee surgery, which means Mitchell, a speedster from Louisiana, is now the main back. And the other rookie, Trey Sermon, will be active on game days. Sermon, whom the 49ers traded up to select in the third round, was a healthy scratch for the 49ers in the opener.

JaMycal Hasty was the other active running back against Detroit. He figures to bump up to the No. 2 role.

Sermon, who played his final college season at Ohio State after transferring from Oklahoma, will have an opportunity to win playing time with how he practices and performs the rest of the season.


“He battled some injuries throughout training camp, so did Elijah,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said of Sermon. “It gave Hasty some opportunities to really show some stuff in the preseason to look good. Elijah came in and looked just a little bit ahead of him in the limited plays that he got.”

Shanahan said it was not an easy call to sit Sermon in Week 1.

“No one was passing up Raheem, so you only could get three guys up,” Shanahan said. “It's not an easy decision, but that’s part of the NFL. But it’s a matter of time. We haven't got through a year here where we haven't started at least four different backs.

“And, 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 just keep getting better because there’s a reason we drafted him and we’ve got a lot of confidence in him. But we've got a lot of confidence in all our guys in the building right now.”

The 49ers also have confidence that they can piece things together at cornerback. Rookie Deommodore Lenoir, a fifth-round pick from Oregon, started and played 90 snaps. The Lions tested him only three times, completing just one pass against him for 3 yards.

Shanahan suggested Lenoir made some rookie mistakes that might have gone unnoticed to most onlookers.

“It being his first game, throwing him out there, he played a lot of plays at corner and then he played a little bit there at nickel in the fourth, and I thought he did a good job,” Shanahan said.

“(He) definitely (has) some things he can clean up. I thought he was fortunate when they got by him on that deep ball that sailed out of bounds. But for the most part, like he's been since he's been here, he's not scared of the moment and he went out there and competed.”

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Lenoir got the starting job over third-round pick Ambry Thomas of Michigan. Thomas struggled during training camp with holding and pass-interference penalties. He got into Sunday’s game and gave up three completions on three targets for 44 yards, according to PFF.

Jaylon Moore, a fifth-round pick from Western Michigan, was active Sunday as the team’s backup offensive tackle. Veteran Tom Compton served as the backup guard over Aaron Banks, a second-round draft pick from Notre Dame.

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