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Two under-the-radar 49ers rookies make big first impressions

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Trey Lance Elijah Mitchell

In the non-quarterback division, the 49ers rookies who made the biggest impressions when the newcomers debuted on the practice field last week were two of the team’s final draft picks.

Running back Elijah Mitchell and cornerback Deommodore Lenoir were both selected in draft positions that indicate their spots on the regular-season roster are far from guaranteed.

But the initial reviews for both players were favorable. Mitchell and Lenoir gave indications how both cannot only achieve roster spots but also make contributions in their first NFL seasons.

The 49ers did not enter the draft expecting to select two running backs. But when their final pick rolled around in the sixth round at No. 194 overall, the 49ers eschewed positions of greater need to go with the player they believed had the better chance to make the team.

Mitchell showed why Friday in the shadow of Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara during the first day of 49ers rookie camp.

Although he caught only 49 passes during his 42-game career at Louisiana, Mitchell’s value to the 49ers could be as an explosive third-down back who can run crisp routes and catch the ball effortlessly out of the backfield.

In the final 16 plays of the 49ers’ seven-on-seven session, quarterback Trey Lance looked for Mitchell three times and they connected on three completions.

The 49ers’ best pass-catching back has been Jeff Wilson Jr., which he showed during the team’s 2019 run to the Super Bowl. Raheem Mostert has made good strides in that area, too.


But if Mitchell focuses on blitz pickup, he could immediately provide an impact for the 49ers on third downs. Mitchell already has the pass-catching skills. Now, he must show he is not a liability in pass protection when he is forced to remain in the backfield to block.

On the other side of the ball, perhaps, Lenoir was even more impressive.

The 49ers selected Lenoir in the fifth round with Pick No. 172 out of Oregon.

Looking ahead one year, Lenoir could put himself in a position to take over the duties of the all-important nickelback position from K’Waun Williams, who returned to the 49ers this offseason on a one-year contract.

Lenoir could establish himself as a special-teams standout. He could also make it difficult for the 49ers to keep him off the field with the tenacity he exhibited on the 49ers' practice field.

Lenoir says he patterns his play after a hyena -- not exactly the most glamour predator in the animal kingdom.

His physical coverage against undrafted rookie Austin Watkins Jr. during a one-on-one drill resulted in an intercepted pass against Lance.

When video of the play was posted on social media, Hall of Fame cornerback Deion Sanders took notice.

In Lenoir's other two one-on-one reps, neither Jauan Jennings nor veteran Marqise Lee caught a pass against his tight, aggressive coverage. Lenoir appears to carry himself with a sense of urgency and purpose.

One of the remarkable stories to emerge after the draft came when Lenoir revealed his late brother’s favorite team was the 49ers.

"I'm not sure how he became a Niner fan, but just knowing him, he always used to talk about the 49ers," said Lenoir, who has his brother’s birthday tattooed across his chest in Roman numerals.

Lenoir said his brother was shot and killed in South Central Los Angeles.

"Just wrong place, wrong time," Lenoir said. "That was a hard one for me because he was a role model for me."

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When the 49ers called to inform him he was heading to Santa Clara, of course, Lenoir immediately thought of his brother.

"For them to draft me, it was just a special moment because he left his earth being a Niner fan," Lenoir said.

"Me being able to play for the Niners, it's just an honor."

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