49ers mailbag: Why hasn’t Eli Mitchell been used more? Realistic trade targets?

The 49ers might be on a short week, but our mailbag is the usual length.

Thanks for all your great questions, many of which revolved around two topics coming out of Sunday’s win over the Rams: Christian McCaffrey’s early-season workload and the team’s injury issues at cornerback.

As usual, questions have been edited for length and content.

Why do you think Elijah Mitchell is getting so little work at RB? Has his injury history caused Kyle Shanahan to lose faith in him? – Alex A.

It’s not Shanahan-related. The team’s position coaches — in this case Bobby Turner and Anthony Lynn — have license to send in substitutes as they see fit. And it’s not due to Mitchell’s injury history. If there was a worry he wouldn’t be able to hold up at the position the 49ers wouldn’t use a roster spot on him nor would they deactivate Tyrion Davis-Price on game days the way they have the first two weeks.

My guess is that the position coaches were worried about a turnover late in the Rams game and that they knew McCaffrey was in a rhythm and that he’s not a fumbler. And it’s not as if he was overtaxed Sunday. He played 57 snaps and touched the ball 23 times. Against Pittsburgh, he played 58 snaps and touched the ball 25 times. He’s had 57 or more snaps 34 times in his career.

I think the 49ers just trusted him — more than a running back who was coming off the bench — to close out what had been a tense, back-and-forth contest. The question is why McCaffrey was still getting carries in the fourth quarter of a blowout win over the Steelers in Week 1. A game like that seems like it should be the purview of Mitchell — he did enter the game with 10 minutes to go — or perhaps Jordan Mason, who was strong in the closer role last season.

What’s most important: A healthy McCaffrey in January or the No. 1 seed? – Chris S.

C. Both

I know it’s only week 2 but can you see any teams having a pre-deadline fire sale that the 49ers could take advantage of? – Simon A.

I see the 49ers, who arguably have the best roster in the league and a lot of hefty contracts to pay next season, making a move only if they run into a thorny injury issue at a position amid a playoff-bound season. 

If they got low on wide receivers, for example, could they get the 0-2 Patriots to deal them Kendrick Bourne, an ex-49er who could hit the ground running here?

The Cardinals obviously are in rebuilding mode. If George Kittle had to miss a significant amount of time, Bay Area product Zach Ertz might interest the 49ers. Or what if veteran safety Tashaun Gipson Sr. got hurt? The Cardinals might be willing to part with Budda Baker, who is currently on IR.

If the 49ers really wanted a boost, maybe they could get the Panthers to deal edge rusher Brian Burns, who hasn’t been able to get Carolina to commit to a long-term contract. He’d be a short-term rental, one who might cost the 49ers a high draft pick. But like his former teammate, McCaffrey last season, he’d make an immediate impact on arrival.

Seems the cornerback position is getting a little thin. What are the options there? – Alberto R.

The 49ers on Tuesday signed free agent Anthony Brown, who spent seven seasons with the Cowboys, starting 69 games in that span. The 49ers like that experience. They think he’d be ready to step into a big role if there are more injuries at the position. They also like that he’s played both outside and nickel cornerback over his career.

It should be noted, however, that Brown suffered an Achilles tear in Week 13 last season and that he didn’t spend the offseason or training camp with any team. He also turns 30 in December, which gives him the whiff of other signed-off-the-street cornerbacks — Josh Norman, Dre Kirkpatrick — the 49ers have had in recent years who haven’t been all that great.

As far as in-house candidates, the 49ers elevated Tre Swilling from the practice squad for the Rams game and they could do that again on Thursday. He served as a gunner on special teams but didn’t play on defense. The team has one more cornerback on the practice squad, Shemar Jean-Charles, who spent the offseason with Green Bay and who still may be learning the 49ers’ defense.

Shanahan has said that fifth-round pick Darrell Luter Jr. (knee) might be ready to come off of PUP around Week 5 or 6. Ambry Thomas, who missed most of Sunday’s game with a knee injury, was limited at Tuesday’s practice.

Isaiah Oliver had a good game tackling-wise, but do the 49ers see him as a liability in coverage in the slot? Mike D.

He’s never been the quickest guy, which is a big reason he didn’t work out as an outside cornerback with the Falcons. That issue seemed to be compounded this summer because he didn’t seem to be in sync with the rest of the 49ers defense. Oliver always was a half-step off. 

But on Sunday, it looked like he’d found his groove. His confidence grew throughout the game. And as that confidence increased, so did Oliver’s speed.

“That’s kind of just football as a whole — when you’re more confident and you understand more about what you’re supposed to do, where you need to be, you can get there so much faster,” he said.

Oliver said he hasn’t been told whether he is now the team’s starting nickel cornerback. After Sunday’s performance, however, it would be a mild surprise if he doesn’t have that role against the Giants.



‘He was a stud today’: Isaiah Oliver announces his presence in 49ers’ win

I wonder if Qwuantrezz Knight was told he wasn’t coming up to the 53-man squad for injured Samuel Womack and if that played a big part in his decision to join the Cardinals. Colin L.

Yes, I think that’s the right read. After the 49ers made their roster cuts at the end of August, they and the Cardinals competed to get Knight to join their respective practice squads. He ultimately decided to return to San Francisco’s practice squad with the hope that he’d be signed to the active roster at some point.

The problem is that the 49ers’ injury issues are at outside cornerback and not the positions Knight played this summer — nickel cornerback and safety. The Cardinals are signing him as a safety because they won’t have Baker for at least four games. Safety is where Knight truly distinguished himself in the preseason.

Robert Saleh and DeMeco Ryans were very active and energetic on the sideline. With defensive coordinator Steve Wilks in the booth, who is providing that energy down on the sideline now? And does it have the same effect on the players if it’s not the DC providing it? Seemed like the defense feasted on that energy in previous years. Christoffer A.

Remember how good the 49ers’ defenses were 2011-13? Vic Fangio was the coordinator back then and he was in the booth. I sort of like the idea of the coordinator — the ultimate chess player — removing himself from the hubbub and emotion of the sideline and studying things from above.

Ten years ago, there were plenty of assistant coaches who supplied energy on the sideline. Remember, “Bludgeon! Bludgeon!” from then-defensive line coach Jim Tomsula? Nowadays, guys like defensive line coaches Kris Kocurek and Darryl Tapp as well as secondary coach Daniel Bullocks have filled that role.

Do the Niners have a bigger-than-normal advantage playing at home on a short week against a team traveling over from the east coast? — Jon S.

Yes. The home team has an advantage because there’s less travel and more time to recover. The Giants, however, remained in Arizona after their Week 2 win over the Cardinals. So it’s not as if they’re traveling a huge distance.

Will Kittle need to continue to be a primary blocker unless the right side of the line shows dramatic improvement? — Rich D

Kittle’s done a little bit more pass protecting over the first two weeks than he normally does. He served as an extra blocker on three of 29 pass plays in both games so far, per Pro Football Focus. That’s 10.3 percent of his pass snaps vs. a 6.8 percent rate last season.

Kittle, however, noted he’s been chip-blocking opponents mostly T.J. Watt and Aaron Donald over the first two games. That’s not officially a pass-protection snap, but it certainly impacts his pass catching.

“It’s hard to run a long route when you’re chipping a dude at the start,” Kittle said.

The 49ers were expecting a huge second-year leap from Spencer Burford, but he had the lowest PFF grade on the team for the second week in a row. Do the coaches seem concerned or was PFF too harsh on those grades? — Allan B.

He hasn’t had a clean game yet. But the 49ers did rush for 159 yards on Sunday, scored three rushing touchdowns and fulfilled their biggest goal making sure Aaron Donald had a quiet outing. And Donald was matched against Burford for a big portion of the afternoon. Which is to say, if you’re the 49ers you wish Burford was sharper but you’re not looking for veteran Jon Feliciano to take over from the youngster just yet.

Matt, on Jake Moody’s kickoff that landed way left out of bounds, was kicking left by design or just human error? — David I.

Moody on Tuesday said his plant foot slipped on that kickoff and also on the 26-yard field goal at the end of the game. Moody actually fell to the artificial turf just after making contact on the attempt, which he made.

“It was a little more slick than most turf surfaces I’ve played on,” he said. “It was nothing crazy. But sometimes when you come in, you plant a little bit too hard and your foot will just kind of give out. Thankfully, that happened on the upswing after I’d already hit the ball. It didn’t really affect the kick at all.”

Why isn’t Jordan Willis on the 49ers practice squad already? — James G.

Willis, released from the Raiders practice squad last week, remains available. The 49ers have an extra practice-squad spot due to Knight’s departure. However, they’re already brimming with defensive linemen. They have nine on the active roster, one (Robert Beal Jr.) on IR and four on the practice squad: Alex Barrett, Austin Bryant, Marlon Davidson and T.Y. McGill.

Jim Harbaugh and Kyle Shanahan /John Lynch: Two very distinct eras, both filled with a host of Ring of Honor / HoF talent — and all-time personalities. If you had to create one Kyle and Jim team — 22 starters and a backup QBs — who makes the cut? – Thiago V.


  • QB Alex Smith, Colin Kaepernick
  • RB Christian McCaffrey
  • FB Kyle Juszczyk
  • WR Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk
  • TE George Kittle
  • LT Trent Williams
  • LG Laken Tomlinson
  • C Alex Mack
  • RG Mike Iupati
  • RT Joe Staley


  • LDE Nick Bosa
  • DT DeForest Buckner
  • DT Justin Smith
  • DE Aldon Smith
  • MLB Fred Warner
  • WLB Patrick Willis
  • SLB NaVorro Bowman
  • NCB Carlos Rogers
  • CB Charvarius Ward
  • CB Richard Sherman
  • S Donte Whitner
  • S Talanoa Hufanga


1. Frank Gore is going to be mighty peeved. Mighty peeved. But McCaffrey provides more variability.

2. Kittle or Vernon Davis? This was nearly a coin flip for me, but I went with Kittle because of his run-blocking ability.

3. Justin Smith gets one of the DT spots hands down. I would have been comfortable with Arik Armstead or Javon Hargrave in the other.

Not to be pedantic, but isn’t it ‘minutiae’ (from the ‘minutia minute’ item that runs the day after games) or is the author creating his own thing? Honest question. — Scott M.

Three reasons:

1. We have an 80-character limit to our headlines, and every character counts. (After typing ‘49ers minutia minute:’ I only have 58 characters left to grab the reader.)

2.  It’s still grammatically correct. Minutia means ‘small, precise detail’ so it’s akin to ‘small-matter minute.’

3. I didn’t know the plural was ‘minutiae’ when I started the standing feature nearly 10 years ago. I thought because the word ended in “a ” it was already plural. (And I took Latin in high school! The shame! Oh well, I suppose errare est humanum).

(Top photo of Eli Mitchell: Stan Szeto / USA Today Sports)

“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Preorder it here.

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