SF 49ers depth chart: Nick Mullens in spotlight after Jimmy Garoppolo injury

Nick Mullens #4 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Nick Mullens #4 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

SF 49ers fans are once again facing the reality Jimmy Garoppolo could miss time, putting backup quarterback Nick Mullens in the spotlight again.

In many ways, the SF 49ers‘ 31-13 Week 2 road win over the New York Jets felt like a loss.

Despite the one-sided victory and head coach Kyle Shanahan’s squad getting their first win of the still-young season, the Niners watched as a multitude of their key players exited the contest with varying injuries, many of them awfully serious.

And while the most notable injuries were to defensive linemen Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas, both of whom are feared to have suffered season-ending ACL tears, San Francisco also lost quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a high-ankle sprain.

Garoppolo took a sack early in the first half, brought down by Jets second-year defensive tackle Quinnen Williams. And while Garoppolo attempted to gut it out for the rest of the second quarter, he exited to the locker room and didn’t return.

San Francisco subsequently ruled him out for the remainder of the game, but it mattered little after the SF 49ers managed a 21-3 first-half lead.

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In 2019, one of the primary depth-chart discussion points centered on No. 2 quarterback Nick Mullens, who relieved Garoppolo and fellow QB C.J. Beathard for eight games back in 2018 after Garoppolo tore his ACL and Beathard suffered a wrist injury.

Mullens went 3-5 during that span, posting a respectable-if-not convincing 90.8 passer rating during that stretch with 13 touchdowns against 10 interceptions.

The Niners didn’t need Mullens last year, at least for any meaningful snaps. But it’s looking more and more like this won’t be the case early in 2020. After the game, Shanahan told reporters Garoppolo suffered a high-ankle sprain. Without getting into the specifics, those injuries can be tricky to recover from.

“Jimmy, I’m not really sure about,” Shanahan said when asked about his immediate availability for Week 3. “Being a high-ankle sprain and stuff, I know he couldn’t go in the second half. You’ll see how that heals.”

But the underlying comments from Shanahan about Mullens points to the very-real possibility the No. 2 option becomes the starter in Week 3 versus the New York Giants, also to be played at MetLife Stadium.

In relief of Garoppolo during the second half, Mullens went 8-of-11 for 71 yards, zero touchdowns, an interception off a tipped pass and a 51.7 passer rating.

“I thought Nick [Mullens] came in and made a couple big plays,” Shanahan added. “For the most part, we were running the ball then. He didn’t have to do a ton. But I know he messed up [on the interception]. It looked like that ball was a little high from what I saw. I think he’ll be a lot more ready next week with the preparation.”

SF 49ers can still win without Jimmy Garoppolo and Nick Mullens in

It won’t be easy, and the Niners are clearly a better team with Jimmy G at the helm despite the vast criticism he received from a relatively lackluster effort in San Francisco’s Week 1 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. But the overall talent surrounding Mullens in 2020 is far superior to what the former undrafted free-agent quarterback had back during his eight-game stint in 2018.

For starters, the SF 49ers run game is far more superior, boasting three players capable of starting: Jerick McKinnon, Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman.

Additionally, the dual-headed threat of tight end George Kittle and Jordan Reed, the latter having caught two touchdowns in Sunday’s win, should help make Mullens’ life much easier.

With the defensive shortages, however, Mullens might be called upon to deliver much more than just a fill-in quarterback, potentially requiring an offensive-first approach from the Niners instead of the team being able to rely on what was a stout defense carrying over from a year ago.

Ultimately, however, the length of any Garoppolo absence will be the biggest factor for Shanahan and even Mullens, as the latter is now being asked to take meaningful snaps.

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Something 49ers fans hoped wouldn’t be the case in 2020.