SANTA CLARA — Elijah Mitchell has a special appreciation of what Christian McCaffrey brings to the 49ers, specifically in terms of third-down action.
“His third-down skills are crazy, the way he catches the ball, runs routes,” Mitchell said Thursday, after the 49ers’ final practice before reporting back Monday to open Week 1 of the regular season.
Guess which area Mitchell has focused this offseason on improving? That’s right, third down, where he might get used in relief of McCaffrey or else line up in the backfield while McCaffrey lines up as a slot receiver.
“We feed off each other,” Mitchell said. “Both of us can catch the ball and run. It’s unbelievable. It’s awesome, it’s awesome.”
Mitchell’s knee sprains last season kept him from forming a reliable 1-2 punch with McCaffrey. They only played six of the final 14 games together. But Mitchell averaged 4.7 yards per carry in them, the same mark from his 2021 rookie season, when he led the 49ers with 971 yards while missing six games with injuries.
Mitchell’s health issues continued into this past training camp, most of which he missed because of a groin issue. He resumed practicing this week, however, and declared: “Ready to go for Week 1.”
“I’m trying not to worry about it. I’m a physical player, so that’s what I do,” Mitchell said of his injury history. “Stuff happens in football. I’m on the verge of having a good year and just running like I usually run.”
If Mitchell breaks loose down the middle for a third-down reception or picks up a blitzing linebacker in the pocket, that will mirror some of the work he’s put in this offseason and camp, and it will reflect what he’s gleaned from McCaffrey. “Since my rookie year, even before that, I’d watch Christian play and say, ‘He’s so elusive, it’s crazy.’ He’s a hell of a player,” Mitchell said. “His pass game, the way he is in third down, his blitz protection, the way he routes people up, it’s unbelievable.”
Mitchell’s workload could be minimized if the 49ers can maximize their production from McCaffrey. In 2019, McCaffrey became only the third player in NFL history with 1,000 yards both rushing and receiving in a season. Mitchell said he wouldn’t be surprised if McCaffrey repeats that feat this season, but added: “That’s one thing about Christian, he doesn’t really worry about the stats. He just goes out and plays the game.”
Last October, the 49ers sent four draft picks to the Carolina Panthers to acquire the former Stanford star. At the time, Mitchell was still recovering from a knee injury in the season-opening loss at Chicago.
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If both Mitchell and McCaffrey are healthy on a star-studded offense helmed by Brock Purdy at quarterback, then the 49ers could be a high-scoring unit, starting next Sunday at Pittsburgh.
“We have a lot of ability and potential is a word thrown around a lot,” McCaffrey said during camp. “It comes down to executing each play. We have a really good offense.”