The story of how an underrated running back out of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette was discovered by a data analytics department in San Francisco.
by Matthew Suh ‘24
SANTA CLARA, CA — 37%. This is the percentage of players who are considered “useless” after being drafted by an NFL team. “Useless” means they either didn’t play much while on the team or were outright cut from the team after being drafted. So how did the 49ers find a diamond in the rough in the 6th round of the 2021 NFL Draft? The answer lies in data analytics.
Demitrius Washington, now VP of Football Operations for the Minnesota Vikings, used to be the Manager of Football Research and Development for the 49ers. One day, after using his metrics and researching players to take in the upcoming NFL Draft, Washington landed on Elijah Mitchell, whose numbers and metrics told Washington that he was the best outside zone running back. Because Washington didn’t want to approach 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan with just a bunch of numbers on a piece of paper, he asked Ran Carthon, former 49ers Director of Player Personnel, to review Elijah Mitchell’s college tape to confirm that the data was “telling the truth.” Ran Carthon reviewed the tape and confirmed that the data aligned with the tape.
In addition, first-year defensive coordinator Demeco Ryans was set on drafting a LB (linebacker) in the 6th round of the 2021 NFL Draft before walking into the 49ers’ draft room and seeing Elijah Mitchell’s tape. After watching some of Elijah Mitchell’s tape, Demeco Ryans called up the 49ers linebackers coach, Johnny Holland, to let him know that the 49ers had changed their mind and were gonna draft RB Elijah Mitchell instead of the LB (linebacker) they were planning to take.
After being drafted by the 49ers, Elijah Mitchell exploded in his rookie year, rushing for 963 yards on 207 rush attempts with 5 rushing TDs. Mitchell averaged 87.5 yards per game and 4.7 yards per attempt in just his first year. Additionally, Mitchell racked up 19 receptions on 20 targets with 1 receiving TD, helping lead the San Francisco 49ers to the NFC Championship Game in 2021.
On January 2, 2022, Elijah Mitchell broke the San Francisco 49ers single-season rookie rushing record with 878 rushing yards in 10 games, surpassing Vic Washington’s record of 811 yards in 14 games in 1971.
Drafting players in the NFL has always been a daunting task, but with the help of data analytics, it has allowed NFL teams to identify potential sleepers and undervalued players such as Elijah Mitchell. Demetrius Washington and the whole San Francisco 49ers data analytics department should be proud of discovering a diamond in the rough.
While Bellarmine College Prep’s data analytics team may not be as in-depth as a professional sports organization like the San Francisco 49ers, they can still use their data and metrics to help analyze player performance, identify trends in team performance, and develop strategies for game-planning against opponents. Bellarmine’s data analytics team will utilize these tools and metrics to help Bellarmine’s football team on its quest for a CCS Championship win this upcoming fall.
Matthew Suh is a staff writer and contributor for The Bell Online, Fresh Coast Sports, and The Press Box. Follow Matthew on Twitter @matthewsuh.