FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Trey Sermon’s rookie season didn’t go as planned in 2021. Not for him, the San Francisco 49ers or Fantasy Football managers. But he’s looking forward to a fresh start this year, and he’s putting in the work to improve.
Sermon spent part of his offseason working out at XPE Sports, which is a training facility for NFL athletes, mostly with a focus on speed. He feels like he’s in better shape, with improved footwork, and he expects that to help him in his sophomore campaign.
“I definitely notice a difference,” Sermon said. “I just feel more powerful. I feel like my foot placement is good. Just learning how to run fast and run more efficient, and that’s my main focus.”
In 2021, Sermon was a third-round pick in the NFL Draft out of Ohio State, and there was an expectation he would become the best running back for the 49ers. He became a popular mid-round breakout pick in Fantasy drafts. That didn’t happen, as fellow rookie Elijah Mitchell took over the San Francisco backfield after starter Raheem Mostert suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 1.
Sermon’s struggles started in training camp, and he was a surprise healthy scratch for the season-opener at Detroit. He was active in Week 2 at Philadelphia when Mostert was hurt, but he had just one carry for 8 yards.
He played 59 percent of the snaps in Week 3 against Green Bay when Mitchell was out with a shoulder injury, and Sermon finished with 10 carries for 31 yards and a touchdown, along with two catches for 3 yards on three targets. And then he had his best game of the season in Week 4 against Seattle with Mitchell out again, getting 19 carries for 89 yards on 51 percent of the snaps.
Mitchell returned in Week 5, and Sermon only had one carry for 7 yards. He didn’t see the field again on offense until Week 11 at Jacksonville when Mitchell was out with a finger injury, and Sermon had 10 carries for 32 yards, along with one catch for 23 yards.
Sermon then hurt his ankle in Week 12 against Minnesota, and his season was basically over. He spent the final six games of the regular season on injured reserve, and he was inactive for the first two playoff games. He only appeared on special teams in the NFC Championship Game loss against the Rams.
“It was a learning experience for me,” Sermon said. “I didn’t play my best, but I also learned a lot. I felt like I was getting better each time I got an opportunity, each time I stepped on the field, even in practice. I felt like I was constantly developing and getting better. It was definitely a learning experience, and in Year 2, I’m definitely ready now.”
The 49ers are counting on Sermon to have a bigger role in his second year. He’s expected to compete with Mitchell for touches, especially with Mostert gone, but San Francisco also has Deebo Samuel to use in the backfield (for now), as well as Jeff Wilson returning as a free agent.
Sermon knows he has work to do to prove himself, but he’s confident in his abilities. And 49ers general manager John Lynch said at the NFL Combine they still have faith in Sermon this year.
“Trey, I think, had to make an adjustment to how you run in the NFL,” Lynch said. “And I think that’s natural for rookies, and he got in a situation where Elijah was playing a lot as the season evolved, Deebo became a big part of what we were doing. We also had Jeff Wilson once he got healthy and Raheem at the start, so it was a crowded room. But Trey is someone we’re really excited about, as we are with Elijah. We like our depth in that room.”
Sermon could be the next in line to keep a trend going for running backs under Kyle Shanahan. Since taking over as San Francisco’s head coach in 2017, Shanahan has yet to have the same leading rusher in consecutive seasons.
Carlos Hyde (938 rushing yards) led the way in 2017, followed by Matt Breida (814 rushing yards) in 2018, Mostert (772 rushing yards) in 2019, Wilson (600 rushing yards) in 2020 and Mitchell (963 rushing yards) last year. Injuries have played a part in guys not repeating, and we’ll see if Mitchell can break the trend.
But if Mitchell struggles or gets hurt (he missed six games as a rookie last year due to various injuries) then it could be Sermon as the next man up if he proves to be better than Wilson. Samuel could also be a factor if he stays in San Francisco, but Sermon wants to break training camp as no worse than No. 2 on the depth chart.
“I did know there’s always been a different leading rusher,” Sermon said. “That’s why I continue to just work hard to get my mind, my body and everything ready for the season.”
Tony Villani, who opened XPE Sports in South Florida in 2009, has worked with Sermon this offseason. Villani compared Sermon to Mark Ingram, who started working out at XPE Sports early in his NFL career. Villani also worked with former Ravens and Browns running back Jamal Lewis, along with plenty of other players at different positions.
Villani expects to see a better version of Sermon in his second year because of the work he’s done this offseason.
“The goal was we have to get him fast first,” Villani said. “We have to make sure he knows how to reach a max speed first. We have to teach him to get fast first and then to establish speed. He’s doing great. I love watching it.”
Sermon hopes to showcase what he’s done this offseason with the 49ers. He hopes to make a better impression in San Francisco in his second year. And Fantasy managers should be paying attention.
While Mitchell will be the first 49ers running back drafted in the majority of leagues — Round 5 in PPR, Round 4 in other formats — you might want to wait for Sermon with a mid-round pick. If he’s faster and knows how to play his position better, he could be the next leading rusher for Shanahan, especially if Mitchell struggles to stay healthy.
We have to see what happens with Samuel and if he stays with the 49ers. And we have to keep an eye on Wilson as well. But Sermon is ready to compete with Mitchell, and Sermon could be one of the surprise running backs for Fantasy managers in 2022.
“Just to compete with Elijah, he’s a great running back. We definitely make each other better,” Sermon said. “I definitely see myself competing and having the chance to take the starting spot.”