Nick Mullens made a name for himself with the 49ers in 2018, yet he still ends up facing a somewhat uncertain future entering 2020 and beyond.
Mullens, the former undrafted free agent out of Southern Mississippi, eventually won the job, forcing Beathard into a third-string role where he’d spend the entirety of 2019 on the inactive list. And while head coach Kyle Shanahan mentioned it was a wide-open competition between the two in camp and the preseason, Mullens’ surprising success late in an otherwise frustrating 2018 campaign for San Francisco certainly played some influence.
Especially considering how little was initially expected of him.
Mullens didn’t see any meaningful field time last season, yet it was important the 49ers boasted a quality backup in case Garoppolo suffered an injury. Still, there was talk the Niners could have traded Mullens away at some point this offseason, selling high on what is still a pretty good stock value for a 25-year-old quarterback with some impressive pro-level performances under his belt.
Yet San Francisco didn’t partake in the offseason quarterback carousel, and it’s highly unlikely Mullens gets moved between now and Week 1 unless another team’s starter suffers a debilitating injury and Mullens commands a hefty return.
While that’s possible, it seems more likely Mullens remains a backup behind Garoppolo this season.
After that, though, things get interesting.
Why Nick Mullens improves with 49ers in 2020
Aside from his preseason efforts last season — 22-of-34 with two touchdowns against one interception — there isn’t much to gauge on aside from his 2018 efforts.
Mullens showed a knack for getting the ball out quickly, which worked to his benefit over Beathard. Yet the former’s arm strength generally lacked, and it wasn’t too common to see Mullens throw short- and intermediate-area passes for most of his tenure.
That isn’t necessarily a bad option in Shanahan’s offense, particularly with some of the yards-after-catch numbers San Francisco’s receivers generate.
If there is an area to improve, however, it’ll likely be on third-down situations where his 58.8 completion percentage and 74.1 passer rating were both lows on all downs.
Why Nick Mullens regresses with 49ers in 2020
There’s little questioning Mullens enjoyed the relationship with then-quarterbacks coach Rich Scangarello in 2018, as Scangarello essentially hand-picked Mullens after the 2017 NFL Draft. Scangarello moved on to the Denver Broncos for a one-year stint as offensive coordinator, and now-QBs coach Shane Day will look to revive that relationship.
It’s unclear whether or not Day has the same rapport with Mullens as did Scangarello. So it’s only speculation to suggest Mullens would regress significantly from what was seen two seasons ago.
That said, Mullens could easily fall into that trap of being a “good player on a bad team,” which was the case when the Niners had zero expectations and pressure late in 2018.
What the future holds for Nick Mullens this season and beyond
Considering the real likelihood of zero preseason games in 2020, the battle at hand will be between Mullens and Beathard again for the No. 2 job behind Garoppolo. One should consider the undrafted rookie, Broc Rutter, as a dark-horse candidate and possible practice squad addition. Even though he was waived recently, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Rutter back on the practice squad this season.
Mullens should win the job outright, putting Beathard’s immediate future in question. At the same time, there’s always the chance another team is willing to make an offer for Mullens’ services. San Francisco has turned these down already, but the situation could be vastly different and other teams’ offers could be notably higher, too.
Where things get interesting, however, is in 2021 when Mullens is scheduled to become a restricted free agent. It seems likely the Niners would offer him a qualifying tenure, perhaps the Round 2 variety worth over $3 million. Another team could come calling, though, being forced to give up a second-round draft pick in exchange for Mullens’ services.
Perhaps that’s a situation the 49ers would actually enjoy: turning a UDFA into a Round 2 pick.
Either way, this upcoming year and the following could see some dramatic changes for both Mullens and San Francisco’s backup quarterback situation.