The 2018 season was a disappointment in a major way given Jimmy Garoppolo’s ACL injury. And yet, that disappointment came with an entirely unexpected silver lining. C.J. Beathard struggled in place of Jimmy G, and that coupled with a wrist injury resulted in the promotion of Nick Mullens to the starting QB role.
Kyle Shanahan is viewed as an offensive coaching savant, and the 49ers were facing the Oakland Raiders in Mullens debut, but expectations were still relatively low heading into Thursday Night Football. Things changed in a hurry! Mullens completed 16 of 22 passes for 262 yards and three touchdowns in a 34-3 rout.
From there, the starting job was all his the rest of the way. The 2017 undrafted free agent signing finishing the season completing 64.2 percent of his passes for 2,277 passing yards, with 13 touchdowns, ten interceptions, and a passer rating of 90.8. Looking at Football Outsiders DYAR metric, Mullens ranked ahead of Dak Prescott, Nick Foles, and Marcus Mariota, among other quarterbacks.
Back in February, Pro Football Focus released their QB annual and Oscar Aparicio broke down the key takeaways. Notably, Mullens played it safe in avoiding turnovers, he did not attempt many difficult throws, and he was a player who struggled outside of structure. Most notably, when he took 2.6 seconds or longer to throw the ball, his expected points added (EPA) per play dropped into the negative — he was effectively taking points off the board when he took longer to throw the ball.
Mullens did solid work within the system, and as Oscar concluded, one could argue this offers even more insight into how impressive Kyle Shanahan is as an offensive coach.
Experience: Third season
Mullens is due $570,000 in base salary this season, with no bonus money. He signed a two-year contract in 2018 when he was promoted to the 53-man roster. He will be a free agent this offseason, barring a contract extension, but will be an exclusive rights free agent as he would only have two seasons of service time (he spent his rookie year on the practice squad).
How he might improve in 2019
Mullens has eight starts under his belt and another full offseason learning Shanahan’s system. Mullens has certain limitations, but given his ability to perform in Shanahan’s system, more time would seemingly bode well for his development. He would appear to have a low ceiling, but he could build himself a fairly high floor as a backup, spot starter type of quarterback.
How he might regress in 2019
Jimmy Garoppolo has declared himself good to go as training camp approaches. He will still need to pass his physical at the start of camp, but things have been going according to plan thus far. If the ACL or anything else becomes an issue and Mullens is forced into the starting lineup, teams will be a little more prepared for him. Although Shanahan’s system is impressive, there will be a half-season of film on Mullens to work with. He could continue improving or at least perform similarly last year, but we very well might have seen the best there is of Mullens.
Odds of making the roster
There’s just no way he is cut before the start of the regular season. I don’t know if the 49ers will carry three quarterbacks, but Mullens performed well enough over the second half of last season that it would be kind of crazy to cut him. Quarterbacks are too valuable to give up someone who showed he could compete at the highest level. At the same time, given the value of quarterbacks, a trade is always possible. The chance of that happening strikes me as highly unlikely, but it’s not a zero percent chance.
Jimmy Garoppolo has an injury history, and I would not be surprised to see the 49ers carry three quarterbacks for at least the first part of the year. Maybe they can trade away Beathard and ride with just Mullens as a backup, but I would be moderately surprised if the 49ers did not enter Week 1 with three quarterbacks on the roster.
Where it gets interesting is the competition for the backup role. The 49ers spent serious draft capital to select C.J. Beathard. He’s gotten opportunities, but one could still say he lost his job last year due to the wrist injury. I think Mullens ends up the No. 2 quarterback, but this will be an intriguing competition in August.