A lot of variables factor into fantasy success, but it’s interesting to note players with similar career paths. Perhaps there is no late-round running back who’ll become a fantasy RB2 out of nowhere in 2022 like Elijah Mitchell did last season, but if there is, maybe we can figure out who it will be by examining the player’s story and production thus far. Here’s the running back who might replicate Mitchell’s surprise rookie year breakout in 2022.
Who is This Year’s Elijah Mitchell?
2021 Elijah Mitchell → 2022 Pierre Strong
Last offseason sparked plenty of debates between Trey Sermon and Raheem Mostert as potential league winners in Kyle Shanahan’s efficient zone run offense. Instead, following a Week 1 injury to Mostert, Elijah Mitchell emerged as the lead back in San Francisco. The Day 3 NFL Draft pick from a small school not generally known for its football program won the starting job and finished the season as the RB18 in PPR points per game (PPG) despite having been mostly a late-round fantasy selection or even a waiver wire add.
Yours truly touted Mitchell as a deep sleeper last August based on his draft profile as a strong one-cut runner with good contact balance who was familiar with Shanahan’s outside zone run offense due to having played in a similar scheme at Louisiana. Mitchell also ran a 4.35 40-yard dash at his pro day, which meant that he had the speed to break big plays at the second level, a priority trait in Shanahan’s system. Indeed, behind a 49ers offensive line that ranked 11th in adjusted line yards last season, Mitchell finished the year seventh among running backs in rushing yards over expectation per carry (RYOE/Att) and fifth in yards after contact per carry (YAC/Att).
Interestingly enough, the best comparable player to Pierre Strong per Player Profiler is Mitchell, and I swear that I didn’t see this comparison until after I had already started writing this article. Like Mitchell, Strong was a Day 3 NFL Draft pick from a small school who’s built similarly to Mitchell and has big play ability, having ran a 4.37 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine. At South Dakota State, Strong excelled on zone run plays with his ability to hit the hole and produce large gains on these explosive runs. Reports out of the Patriots’ OTAs that Bill Belichick and the offense have been experimenting with more outside zone concepts could explain why New England drafted Strong when they already had Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson on the roster.
Belichick has long admired Shanahan’s offensive scheme, and while much is still yet to be determined during training camp and the preseason, a potential shift toward more zone runs this coming season could benefit Strong. Although Strong may be more of a dynasty stash than a redraft target at this point, there are whispers that Harris could be a potential trade candidate. Even if Harris remains on the roster, an early-season injury to either Harris or Stevenson like the one Mostert suffered last year could open the door for Strong to have a Mitchell-esque rookie campaign, especially running behind a New England offensive line that ranked ninth in adjusted line yards in 2021 and remains a strong run-blocking unit heading into 2022.
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