SANTA CLARA (AP) — No matter what happens when Jimmy Garoppolo is healthy again and steps back in as starting quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, Nick Mullens has proven there’s a place for him somewhere in the NFL.
The former undrafted free agent out of Southern Mississippi who wasn’t even deemed worthy enough to invite to the combine in 2017 has been one of the league’s more prolific passers since getting his chance to play last month.
“He’s shown he can play in this league,” 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman said. “I hope we can keep him because teams need a quarterback. This guy’s not just playing conservative football, oh man, get the ball in the right places. He’s making the right decisions, he’s making good throws under pressure. 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 and we appreciate that we have him and he’s playing his tail off for us.”
Mullens has built on his record-setting debut against Oakland on Nov. 1, when he went 16 for 22 for 262 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions for a 151.9 passer rating that was the highest since the merger for a player in his debut with at least 20 attempts.
He took a little step back the following two games in losses to the New York Giants and Tampa Bay before starting to show noticeable improvement in the second half of a 43-16 loss at Seattle earlier this month.
Mullens followed that up by leading the Niners (4-10) to wins over Denver and Seattle to provide a rare bright spot in an otherwise down season for San Francisco.
“I try to get better every week,” Mullens said. “That’s definitely the goal. What you do in the past doesn’t matter. It’s all about what you do today and the next day and the future. It’s definitely a goal of mine to get better every single day. Feel more comfortable out there. Obviously, experience helps. You could say the experience helps and I feel more comfortable. I’m just enjoying playing.”
Since taking over as starter, the player once considered too small and with an arm not strong enough for the NFL ranks third in the league in yards per attempt (8.6) and sixth in yards passing per game (292.3).
He fared well against Seattle’s strong defense in a 26-23 overtime win on Sunday, completing 20 of 29 passes for 275 yards and one touchdown despite a couple of key drops that prevented him from having even bigger numbers.
“Nick’s played very well and he’s gotten better as he’s gone,” coach Kyle Shanahan said Monday. “I thought yesterday was probably Nick’s best game, especially the way he finished it in that fourth quarter.”
Mullens got his chance when C.J. Beathard was hurt heading into the Raiders game but now has put up better numbers than Garoppolo did in eight starts for San Francisco the past two years before a season-ending knee injury in Week 3.
While Garoppolo will no doubt be the starter next season with his $137.5 million contract, Mullens has made his case to be the No. 2 even though Beathard was a fourth-round pick the year Mullens entered as an undrafted player.
“I think I can play in the league, that’s for sure. I believe that,” Mullens said. “But, as far as the extra stuff goes, I don’t really worry too much about it.”
Mullens’ teammates saw signs that he could perform on the big stage before he even got his chance. He led some late comebacks in exhibition games and had a relentless work ethic and attention to detail that he even practiced calling out plays at home with crowd noise blaring through his ear phones.
He also took young receivers under his wing, making sure they knew the offense as well as he did even before he was playing.
“You talk about a young kid who’s come in here, learned the offense, was on the practice squad all of last year. He’s teaching the young receivers in his class the playbook,” kicker Robbie Gould said. “He’s really a coach. The kid has such an incredible story. He finally gets his chance about a year and a half later and he’s really taken the reins. He’s a true leader. You cheer for guys like Nick Mullens.”
NOTES: CB Ahkello Witherspoon will go on IR with a sprained PCL in his right knee. ... S Jaquiski Tartt has a stinger and his status for this week is up in the air.