The San Francisco 49ers appeared to have discovered a hidden gem in quarterback Nick Mullens. After Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL and C.J. Beathard struggled to get the offense going and then injured his wrist, Mullens got a shot to start.
In seven starts, Mullens has exceeded everybody’s expectations. He is third for most passing yards through the first seven starts of his career, dating back to 1970. Additionally, he has thrown for 220 or more passing yards in each of his first seven starts, making him the first 49ers quarterback to do that since Jeff Garcia accomplished the feat in 2000.
The question now is what is next for Mullens with the 49ers. When Garoppolo returns next year, there will be no competition for the starting job. Mullens will either compete with Beathard for the backup job, or one of them could be traded between now and Week 1 next season.
Mullens is signed through the 2019 season. He signed a three-year contract as a UDFA last year before being cut and signed to the practice squad. When he was promoted to the 53-man roster this year, he signed a two-year contract. When his contract expires after the 2019 season, he would be an exclusive rights free agent. That is a player with less than three years service time. Mullens did not accrue a season last year, so he would have two accrued seasons if he made the 53-man roster next year.
For ERFAs, the team can sign them to a league minimum tender and the player either signs it or does not play. Mullens’ one-year ERFA tender would cover the 2020 season. After that season, he would have a third accrued season and would become an restricted free agent. At that point, the 49ers would tender him with a first round tender, second round tender, or original round tender. Since he signed as a UDFA, the last option would simply give the 49ers the right of first refusal on any offer sheet he signs with another team.
This means that unless he is released, Mullens cannot reach unrestricted free agency until after the 2021 season. That’s a lot of time under some semblance of team control for the most important position on the roster. It remains to be seen how well he will perform, and really how many opportunities he will get between now and spring 2022. However, it’s safe to say that there are teams around the league would happily give up draft pick compensation to figure out if he could be their answer.
The 49ers have a potentially strong quarterback room heading into the 2019 season. Garoppolo’s ACL is a concern, but if his rehab goes according to plan, he should be good to go next season. In that situation, having Mullens and Beathard competing for the backup role would be a good situation to have in training camp. At the same time, potentially dealing Mullens for some draft pick compensation would not be the worst thing either.
I doubt we see Mullens dealt this offseason, and my guess is the 49ers are carrying him and Garoppolo next season. I don’t know what that means for Beathard. I could see him getting dealt in training camp to a team looking for some QB depth, although it would not be for nearly the compensation they might now get for Mullens. It will make for an interesting offseason as the 49ers figure out what they want to do at the quarterback position.