2018 was a short and disappointing year for San Francisco 49ers franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo after a Week-3 knee injury prematurely ended his first full season as a starting QB, as well as the Niners' lofty preseason expectations.

For the second consecutive season, sophomore quarterback C.J. Beathard took over under center as the team's de facto starter for the remainder of the year. Unfortunately, just as he was forced to during his QB's rookie season, 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan replaced the third-round draft pick after five uninspiring performances. Beathard was afforded the face-saving excuse of a finger injury as the reason for his benching, although he was healthy enough to suit up for the game.

Next up was quarterback Nick Mullens, a fan favorite who outplayed Beathard during the preseason, but was banished to San Francisco's practice squad as Shanahan and general manager John Lynch chose to retain Beathard over the former undrafted free agent. Mullens breathed instant life into a lackluster 49ers offense over the remainder of 2018, which included a storybook 31-point rout of the Oakland Raiders in his NFL debut, and a long-overdue victory over the rival Seattle Seahawks.

During the 2019 NFL offseason, Lynch and Shanahan added multiple key offensive pieces to the 49ers' roster by drafting a pair of young wide receivers in Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd and signing veteran wideout Jordan Matthews. Shanahan also added a familiar face from their shared days in Atlanta as San Francisco signed veteran running back Tevin Coleman to a team-friendly deal.

The San Francisco 49ers now have the offensive pieces needed for success while lacking much of the pressure forced upon the team as they entered the 2018 NFL regular season. However, the Niners' 2019 destiny still rests on the shoulders of their starting quarterback:

49ers' Starting Quarterback

Jimmy Garoppolo

Although Garoppolo is the 49ers' unquestioned starting QB, all eyes will be on the sixth-year signal-caller -- and his left knee -- once training camp begins. In addition to demonstrating his full recovery from last October's ACL surgery, Garoppolo needs to prove he is worthy of his newfound "franchise quarterback" status and the accompanying $137.5 million contract that briefly made him the highest-paid player in the league.

A year after signing his front-loaded deal, Garoppolo will cost the team less than $20 million in 2019, which ranks 16th among NFL QBs, before his contract rebounds to approximately $27 million for each of the three remaining years of his deal. In a worst-case scenario, the 49ers could part ways with Garoppolo for approximately $4.2 million in dead money after this season, and just $2.8 million after 2020, although either scenario -- and particularly the former -- is unlikely.

Garoppolo experienced some growing pains during his limited action last season, which isn't uncommon in Shanahan's offensive system. As the upcoming season progresses, a more likely scenario for Garoppolo is the QB begins to resemble his 2017 form, when he rattled off five-straight wins for a one-win 49ers squad. Despite limited knowledge of Shanahan's playbook, Garoppolo and the Niners' offense led the NFL in scoring percentage, points per drive and yards-per-drive during the final five games of the 2017 season:


Garoppolo doesn't need to repeat this feat in 2019, but fans will sleep easier if the 49ers' most important player hits the ground running -- knee brace and all -- once training camp begins.

49ers' Projected Backup Quarterback

Nick Mullens

At this point in their short careers, Mullens is a better quarterback than Beathard, and thus deserves the backup QB role he won during his time under center for San Francisco last season.

However, Shanahan informed reporters the pair are "even" in their competition for the team's second-string job, which allegedly "doesn't really start until they get to training camp." Hopefully, the 49ers' head coach is simply promoting competition or pushing Beathard to take a major step forward in case a QB-needy team comes calling during the preseason.

Mullens is shorter, smaller and slower than Beathard, and lacks the arm strength of his counterpart, but Mullens makes plays when he needs to and doesn't lose the football after taking unnecessary sacks. Beathard has the edge with respect to his potential upside and his draft position, but Mullens wins in nearly every statistical passing category, including quarterback rating, adjusted-yards-per-attempt, touchdown percentage, completion percentage, yards-per-game, sack percentage -- and most importantly, victories.

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Fighting for a Roster Spot

C.J. Beathard

After failing to produce during extensive playing time over the past two seasons, Beathard enters training camp as the odd man out, provided the 49ers elect to keep just two quarterbacks on their final roster. In two seasons, Beathard has provided his team with two very good starts -- a Week 10 victory over the New York Giants in 2017, and a close loss to the Green Bay Packers in 2018 -- and eight ugly losses filled with turnovers and errant passes.

Beathard is a tough quarterback who steps into throws when he knows a big hit is coming, and he's demonstrated the ability to perform at a high level -- but far too infrequently. Beathard's upside and third-round draft status could push the team to keep a third quarterback on the roster, provided the second-year QB shines during training camp and the preseason.

Fighting for a Practice Squad Spot

Wilton Speight

The 49ers signed quarterback Wilton Speight as an undrafted free agent at the conclusion of the 2019 NFL Draft. Speight played three seasons under former 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh at the University of Michigan before transferring to UCLA to play for former 49ers head coach Chip Kelly.

At 6-foot-6 and 232 pounds, Speight has the size coveted by NFL teams, but he lacks the technique and arm strength necessary to make throws at the professional level. The rookie quarterback, who will turn 25 during the 2019 season, also comes with a lengthy injury history dating back to his high school years. Speight has very little chance of making the 49ers' final roster, but with a strong training camp and preseason, he could land on San Francisco's practice squad.

Outlook


While the San Francisco 49ers' 2019 season will depend on the development and health of Garoppolo, Lynch and Shanahan need to ensure the Niners' roster also includes a viable backup quarterback who can win football games. Barring injury or trade, Garoppolo and Mullens should be the team's two quarterbacks when the 49ers travel to Tampa Bay in Week 1.

In a best-case scenario, a strong preseason from Beathard allows the 49ers to trade the third-year QB before the season begins. However, even if Beathard fails to show significant improvement, Shanahan's affinity for the Iowa product could force the team to enter the season with three quarterbacks on the final roster.

Next: Running Backs
  • Chris Wilson
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    You may have seen Chris Wilson's work on NFL game theory, statistical analysis and film breakdowns at Locked On 49ers, FanSided, Niner Noise, Insidethe49, ClutchPoints and others. Follow Chris on Twitter @cgawilson.