Nick Mullens reflects on first year as NFL starter and the future

Published 5:26 pm Wednesday, January 2, 2019

By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Sports Editor

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – In the NFL, the quarterback position is the most sought after by owners and coaches because of what a solid player at the position can mean to a team.

But like picking the correct numbers on a lottery ticket, it’s becoming more and more difficult to find franchise quarterbacks these days due to players busting, injuries and poor scouting.

For the San Francisco 49ers, an interesting dilemma lies ahead of the 2019 season.

Jimmy Garoppolo or Nick Mullens.

Garoppolo played in just three games this season going 1-2 before a season-ending ACL injury put the Niners in a tough spot.

San Francisco quickly turned to C.J. Beathard for the next five games, who proceeded to go 0-5 in his time as the starter.

That’s when Mullens, a former starting quarterback at Spain Park High School and the University of Southern Mississippi got his first chance to start on a short week of rest during a Thursday night game against the Oakland Raiders on Nov. 1.

An undrafted free agent, Mullens worked his way up from the practice squad to earn a roster spot and the eventual start.

He went on to end his NFL debut with a 34-3 victory against the Raiders thanks to a 16-for-22 passing mark featuring 262 yards and three touchdowns to no interceptions.

“I knew I was good enough, I knew I could play, but you don’t know exactly how you’re going to play,” Mullens said. “You go out there, stay relaxed and focused and try to do the best you can. I was always confident in myself because you can’t play and not be confident.”

His three touchdowns in that game went on to tie a franchise record for touchdown passes by a 49ers quarterback in their first start for the team and was the first NFL quarterback to do so since 2003.

With no standout receivers or running backs around him aside from tight end George Kittle, Mullens was still able to lead San Francisco to a 3-5 mark as a starter, throwing for 220-plus yards in all eight of his starts.

“I had a blast,” Mullens said. “The record might not be what we wanted, but getting out there, playing ball, competing, that’s why I do the job that I do.”

The fun he had was evident each time he stepped on the field or did a post-game interview, and it’s really what got the team to buy into him as the quarterback moving forward in 2018.

Players commended him on his work ethic and ability against some of the best defenses in the league, including 49ers defensive back Richard Sherman.

“He’s shown he can play in this league,” Sherman said. “I hope we can keep him because teams need a quarterback. This guy’s not just playing conservative football, I’d say he’s playing like a top-half quarterback in this league. You have guys that are out there right now that are not playing better football than Nick Mullens. He could be a starter for a lot of teams in this football league.”

At the end of the season, Mullens had amassed 2,277 passing yards, 13 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions for a passer rating of 90.8. He threw for two or more touchdowns in half of his starts and put at least one TD on the board in seven of his eight starts.

Those totals also led to an average of 284.6 yards per game and a completion percentage of 64.2.

The numbers are eerily similar to Garoppolo in his first eight starts over the last two years posting 284.8 yards per game and a completion percentage of 64.8, while totaling 12 touchdown passes and eight interceptions with a passer rating of 94.2

While the two quarterbacks are similar and both have a ton of upside, Mullens has made his case to either be a starter for the Niners next year or to be rumored in trade talks this off season for other teams looking for a young franchise quarterback that can only improve.

“I think I can get a lot better to be honest,” Mullens said. “I’m just really proud I got the opportunity and am pretty proud of the stuff I put on tape, but I know where I can improve and I know I can get better and that’s the exciting part going into the offseason.”

A big reason for his confidence in improving is due to his hours of work studying the game and film.

Ahead of his first start, he and his head coach Kyle Shanahan talked about what a film rat he was dedicating hours of time to it despite being on the practice squad.

That’s something that helped him prepare for his big moment, and something that should help him even more now that he has film on himself.

“Last year I was watching film on different guys, so now I can evaluate myself,” Mullens said. “That will be a unique aspect of the offseason.”

With Shanahan saying he and Beathard are on a level playing field heading into the offseason to be the 49ers backup quarterback, that was more for a competitive sake, and possibly to keep teams from trying to steal him away.

It’s hard to see Mullens not being at least the backup, but it would come as no surprise if he were battling for the starting job at San Francisco with Garoppolo’s past injuries, or some other team.

“My mindset doesn’t really change no matter what the situation is,” he said. “I’m competing every day. Every day you’re in the NFL you’re competing so my mindset doesn’t change. I just do what I’m supposed to do and do more than what’s required and let the chips fall where they may.”

For now, Mullens will enjoy a couple of weeks off before getting back work for the 2019 season. No matter what the future holds, this past season gave him some special memories.

“Before you never play, you don’t know how awesome it is to an extent,” Mullens said. “Now that I do, it’s going to be different.”