James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports


Solving the Nick Mullens Conundrum: What Should the 49ers Do with the Rising QB?

Levin T. Black
Dec 21, 2018 at 12:15 PM


The whispers started while San Francisco 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens was picking apart a hapless Oakland Raiders defense in his first career start. Following back-to-back wins in Weeks 14 and 15, those whispers have turned into the biggest topic of conversation surrounding the team as it enters the final two weeks of the 2018 season.

Mullens has started six games this season, the most of any 49ers quarterback. If you expand those six games to a full 16 game season Mullens would set a team record that not even Steve Young or Joe Montana approached.

Mullens has averaged 292.33 yards per game, has completed 64.5 percent of passes and has 10 touchdowns to six interceptions. That equates to 4,677 yards, 27 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in a full season when rounded to the nearest number in each statistic. The 49ers record for passing yards in a season is Jeff Garcia's 4,278 in 2000.

Furthermore, no 49ers quarterback has passed for more than 21 touchdowns since 2001 nor has any 49ers quarterback bested the 64.5 percent completion rate since 1997.

Mullens has done very well. That isn't debatable.

What is debatable is what do you do with a 23-year-old quarterback showing the promise of a quality starter? There are three potential scenarios.

Option One: Trade Mullens immediately after the season


This is the option that seems to get the most response.

There certainly is ample trade value currently. 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said Mullens is playing better than half the starting quarterbacks in the league. Even people outside of the organization have begun to praise the play of Mullens.

Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has watched Mullens from the opposite sideline in two of the last three games and commended the young quarterback.

"We hit him, we chased him, he's accurate, he's poised, his arm's plenty good enough, accuracy was there and I thought he's just good," Carroll said following last week's loss to the 49ers.

How much trade value does Mullens have exactly? No one knows. Mullens could have been signed to any team's active roster as recently as Week 3 THIS SEASON. Mullens was on the 49ers practice squad prior to the knee injury that ended Jimmy Garoppolo's season. Back then, the 49ers didn't even know for sure what they had in the product from the University of Southern Mississippi. Prior to promoting Mullens to the active roster on September 26th, the 49ers held a tryout with seven other quarterbacks.

A lot has changed since then, certainly, but exactly how much is the question. Could the 49ers get a third-round pick this offseason? What about a second-round pick? It's too early to guess. His value is likely to swing greatly with the finish to the season. The 49ers play the Chicago Bears this week. The Bears are third in the league in both yards and points allowed per game and are fourth in sacks. The final game of the season will be against the Los Angeles Rams.

If Mullens continues to put up impressive numbers against those two teams, he will be seen as a much safer gamble and his value will rise significantly. If he does well enough, it could skyrocket all the way to potential late first-round value. He'd have to be stupendous but the potential is there. Quarterbacks, especially young ones, who are performing well always carry a lot of value.

On the flip side, if he struggles against what is likely to be constant pressure, most will take it as confirmation that he is merely a quality backup. His value will plummet accordingly.

Option Two: Go with Mullens and get rid of the expensive Garoppolo


This option doesn't have much momentum. It's mostly driven by fans who are still bitter Garoppolo was paid so handsomely after just five starts. That said, this idea could gain a lot of supporters if Mullens continues his impressive play against the Bears and Rams and wins at least one of those games. If the 49ers win both games, look out, this idea would likely become a hotly contested debate all the way into next season.

As for now, the option should be mentioned ... and that's about it.

Option three: Keep Mullens as insurance next season


This is the option believed to be the 49ers' most likely course of action. It's simple really. Garoppolo does have a somewhat checkered injury history. Garoppolo, while with the New England Patriots, missed time in 2016 with a shoulder injury. That injury and his somewhat smaller frame led some to wonder if he could stay healthy for a full 16 games. That was before he suffered his knee injury this season.

The 49ers can let Garoppolo come back next year with Mullens serving as the primary backup. If Garoppolo goes down again, the 49ers would be able to continue with a quarterback they trust. A quarterback who has proven he is capable of winning.

Mullens is already signed through the 2019 season. After the season, the 49ers can tender him as an exclusive rights free agent (ERFA). The title is misleading. He wouldn't really be a free agent. The tender is for a one year, league minimum contract and once made, the player is restricted from negotiating with any other teams. The player can either sign the one year deal or sit out the season. Those are the only options Mullens will have following the 2019 season.

Garoppolo's contract, on the other hand, is very expensive. There is one key part in it though. The 49ers are fine paying Garoppolo assuming he returns as the top-tier quarterback they believe him to be. However, let's say he gets injured midway through next season (hopefully not) and Mullens again performs like a quality starter in his place. In this scenario, the 49ers could utilize an out of sorts in Garoppolo's contract if they want to stick with Mullens in the future.

Garoppolo has a total cap hit of $80.5 million in the final three years of his current contract. However, the 49ers can release him following the 2019 season and only have $4.2 million in dead cap space.

This makes keeping Mullens as an insurance policy a very attractive idea, even if another team offers a first-round pick following the season. With Mullens on the roster, the 49ers either get a full season from Garoppolo in 2019 or move on with Mullens as the future assuming he performs well in place of Garoppolo again. In both futures, the 49ers are led by a quarterback they can win with.

The 49ers are very likely to take option three and keep Mullens. This may frustrate some who believe the team should capitalize on the value Mullens has built this season. However, history shows young quarterbacks who have shown promise simply don't lose value by sitting behind a quality starter. For an example, look no further than Garoppolo.

Garoppolo's value soared in 2016 when he won both of his starts for the Patriots in place of the suspended Tom Brady. The Patriots could have capitalized on his value once Brady returned. They waited. Teams pursued Garoppolo in the offseason and the Patriots still waited despite the fact Garoppolo was entering his final year on his rookie deal.

The Patriots continued to wait until midway through the following season when Garoppolo was set to be a free agent in a few months. They still got a very high second-round pick from the 49ers and there have been reports the Patriots could have gotten a first-round pick from the Cleveland Browns.

If the 49ers keep Mullens and he doesn't play a down next season, his value will likely still be every bit as high as it is in two weeks. After the 2019 season, Mullens would be a 24-year-old quarterback with a one year, league minimum deal who looked like a starter when given the opportunity in 2018.

The 49ers can keep Mullens as insurance next season and cash in later if the insurance isn't needed. The downside is little while the potential upside is enormous.
The opinions within this article are those of the writer and, while just as important, are not necessarily those of the site as a whole.


1 Comment

  • James
    You do everything in your power to keep him on the roster. You let him compete with Jimmy for starter. And if Jimmy gets put to 2nd String well then that is that.
    Dec 23, 2018 at 12:51 AM
    1

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