Examining 49ers' backup QB competition of C.J. Beathard, Nick Mullens

Examining 49ers' backup QB competition of C.J. Beathard, Nick Mullens

The most talked-about competition on the 49ers is also for a job coach Kyle Shanahan hopes is the most superfluous position on the team during the 2019 regular season.

Reserve quarterbacks C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens are competing for the job to suit up on game days and serve as Jimmy Garoppolo’s insurance policy.

“You really hope Jimmy stays healthy so it’s irrelevant who’s the No. 2 guy,” Shanahan said before the 49ers broke off last week at the conclusion of the offseason program.

“These guys have both proven that they can play in this league and we’re going to have to make a tough decision at the end of preseason to which one we want to give that No. 2 job to.”

At the beginning of the past two seasons, there was never a question that Beathard would serve as the team’s backup quarterback -- behind Brian Hoyer in 2017, then Garoppolo last season.

But things are different this summer after Mullens became one of the bright spots of a thoroughly disappointing 49ers season. He played well during his eight-start stint to close out the season.

Mullens compiled a respectable 90.9 passer rating while putting up big numbers after taking over for Beathard for the 49ers’ Week 9 game against the Raiders. Mullens averaged 285 yards passing per game, ranking him fourth all-time through eight games behind Patrick Mahomes, Andrew Luck and Cam Newton.

Yet, Mullens earned nothing other than the right to compete with Beathard for the backup job. And Shanahan seems to be pleased with both players, based on what he witnessed during the nine-week offseason program.

“C.J.’s had a real good camp,” Shanahan said. “He’s been playing real well. So has Nick. So I’ve been excited about both of them.”

Beathard was a third-round draft pick in 2017. The 49ers signed Mullens immediately following that same draft as an undrafted rookie. Mullens was among the final cuts before the starts of the ’17 and ’18 seasons. After he cleared waivers, Mullens immediately signed back to the 49ers’ practice squad.

Mullens was promoted to the 49ers’ 53-man roster last season after Garoppolo sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 3.

First-year quarterbacks coach Shane Day has outlined some areas of improvement for both players. Shanahan said the true competition for the backup job will begin in training camp, but there’s little he does not already know about both men.

“I know both of them so well, because we’ve been here two years with them and we’ve gotten a chance now to see both of them in practice and both of them in games,” Shanahan said.

“They’ve both been doing a real good job, both playing at a high level, so that’s been exciting. But to sit there and really stress over, from a coaching standpoint, trying to make the decision, we’re not there yet because a lot could change.”

Here is a closer look at the decision that Shanahan could face – assuming one of the players is not dealt in a trade -- when the final cuts must be made by Aug. 31 at 1 p.m.

C.J. Beathard

PROS: The 49ers selected Beathard in the third round, which provides a strong indication that he had the physical tools necessary to make all the throws in Shanahan’s offense. But that investment was also two years ago. So, now, the decision is less on potential and more on what the player has done.

Still, Shanahan’s offense is predicated on taking advantage of the weaknesses in the defense. If the play call and defense sets up a deep shot, Shanahan wants to see it thrown deep. Beathard can make the deep throws and has the arm strength to carry the ball outside the numbers.

[RELATED: C.J. Beathard enjoys backup QB competition]

Beathard has shown his toughness through his 10 NFL starts. (That’s also not necessarily a positive, as we’ll explain later.) He has played well at times. He has also struggled. With a better supporting cast, Beathard’s production would also be expected to elevate. Beathard also says the competition has made both players better.

CONS: While Beathard’s toughness can be seen as one of his better qualities, you never want your quarterback taking hits that can be avoided. Beathard must make quicker decisions to get the ball out of his hands and not absorb nearly as many hits he has taken through the course of his first two seasons.

Beathard got pounded way too many times (one sack for every 10.4 dropbacks). Those hits started to have an obvious impact on him, too. He got banged up while making his five starts last season and he began to look shell-shocked.

Physically, he needed a break at the time Mullens took over. But he also appeared to need a mental break, too. In 10 starts over his first two seasons, Beathard threw 13 interceptions with 12 TD passes.

Beathard must improve his pocket awareness. It’s easy to stand in the pocket during offseason drills and training camp in order to make the throws. The big test for Beathard will be to process information and get rid of the ball when he’s going up against an enemy pass rush.

Nick Mullens

PROS: Mullens is a gamer. He has been underestimated his entire career, and he continues to prove himself at every level he’s played.

Mullens took his preparation to peculiar levels even when he was on the practice squad. He practiced called plays in the huddle while cranking up crowd noise in his headphones. Mullens knows the offense very well. He also never showed any signs of getting rattled – other than his annoyance with Shanahan, who continued to talk in his ear after delivering the play call.

Mullens’ arm strength (more on that later) is questionable, but he can make up for some of his limitations with his timing -- his knowledge of the offense, reading the defense and anticipating his throws.

CONS: Despite some very good statistics, including an 8.3-yard average per attempt, Mullens did not grade well with some Pro Football Focus metrics.

His 64.2 completion percentage topped Beathard (60.4) and Garoppolo (59.6), but Mullens ranked near the bottom of the league in completion percentage in small windows as well as passes of 20-or-more yards down the field. The takeaway from PFF is that Mullens thrived because Shanahan was able to scheme receivers to be open.

Where his arm tends to be a problem is that defenders tend to get their hands on Mullens’ passes. In college, he threw 46 interceptions in 44 games. Last season, he was intercepted 10 times in eight starts with 13 TD passes.

NFL Preview 2019: Biggest NFC West questions as training camp nears


NFL Preview 2019: Biggest NFC West questions as training camp nears

Tick, tick, tick. With each passing second, we grow ever closer to the start of the 2019 NFL season.

Training camps will open in a matter of weeks. Mix in four preseason games and, voila, real football will be here before you know it.

It's been a lengthy, but busy offseason for each of the NFC West teams. In the case of the Rams, they've undoubtedly been chomping at the bit to get back on the field after losing in the Super Bowl last year. On the other hand, the 49ers and Cardinals want to get the bad taste of last season out of their mouths.

They are not equally talented, nor do the NFC West teams have the same expectations. However, they do all face significant questions heading into the upcoming season:

San Francisco 49ers 

Is Jimmy Garoppolo fully recovered -- mentally and physically -- from his torn ACL?

The 49ers' 2018 season went off the rails shortly after it got started. Jimmy Garoppolo's ill-conceived decision to cut back into the field away from the sideline in San Francisco's Week 3 loss to the Chiefs took the air out of the franchise, and the season as a whole.

Fast-forward 10 months, and Jimmy G says he's "good to go" for training camp and not suffering any restrictions.

That's all well and good to hear, but it will be difficult to know if Garoppolo is indeed completely recovered from his torn ACL until the real games start being played. It's one thing to do it in practice when wearing the don't-touch red jersey, but entirely another against 11 defenders doing their damnedest to put you into the turf.

Nick Mullens was a pleasant surprise in mop-up duty at the end of the season, but all of San Francisco's quarterback eggs are in the Garoppolo basket. If the 49ers are going to achieve the kind of success they hope to this coming season, Garoppolo can't be hampered by any lingering effects from the injury.

Arizona Cardinals

Is Kliff Kingsbury the real deal, or fool's gold?

You don't often see a college coach with a losing record get a head-coaching job in the NFL. Alas, Kliff Kingsbury and the Arizona Cardinals are here to break the mold.

As the head coach at Texas Tech, Kingsbury went 5-7 last year, his third consecutive losing season. Overall, he amassed a 35-40 career record as head coach of the Red Raiders before being fired at the end of the season.

Now he's the head coach of the worst team in the NFL, and will be tasked with turning No. 1 overall draft pick Kyler Murray into one of the best quarterbacks in the league. Kingsbury's extensive reputation as an offensive genius played a major role in Arizona's decision to hire and pair him with Murray.

But ... the NFL isn't college. While Kingsbury's innovation was desired, his inexperience could leave him vulnerable to a faster game with bigger and stronger athletes.

It's imperative that Kingsbury develop a rapport with Murray and use the quarterback's rookie season to build a foundation for the team moving forward. If Kingsbury proves to be in over his head, the Cardinals could be drafting No. 1 overall again next April.

Los Angeles Rams

How much will Todd Gurley be limited by his knee?

He says his left knee is fine, but the developments going on around the Rams' star running back paint a different picture.

The Rams got off to a blistering start last season, and Todd Gurley was one of the biggest reasons why. He accounted for 1,831 total yards and 21 touchdowns over the first 14 weeks, over which Los Angeles went 11-3.

But then Gurley sat out the final two games of the regular season, and appeared severely limited in the playoffs. While he looked like his typical self while rushing for 115 yards on 16 carries against the Cowboys in the divisional round, Gurley then rushed for only 45 yards on 14 carries in the NFC Championship game and Super Bowl combined.

As if that weren't suspicious enough, the Rams then spent a third-round draft pick on Darrell Henderson, a change-of-pace back that averaged 8.2 yards per carry over three years at Memphis. That's a high price to spend on a back-up running back if Gurley's knee is indeed "fine," and the fact that they did so actually suggests the exact opposite.

[RELATED: Which NFC West rookies will have the most impact in 2019?]

If Gurley misses any significant time, the Rams' offensive attack loses its scariest weapon.

Seattle Seahawks 

Who fills the Doug Baldwin role?

You've seen it countless times. Russell Wilson narrowly escapes the clenches of the defensive line, runs around in circles a few times, rolls out and finds an unbelievably wide-open Doug Baldwin for a 37-yard gain.

You won't see it again, though.

Baldwin called it quits in May, announcing his retirement on Twitter. It leaves a gigantic hole in Seattle's passing attack, one that won't be easy to fill.

The Seahawks have an abundance of straight-line speed at the wide receiver position. Tyler Lockett and second-round draft pick DK Metcalf fit that characteristic to a 'T' and will surely get behind the defense often, but neither is the possession receiver that Baldwin was. 

In fact, as you look at Seattle's roster, there doesn't appear to be an obvious replacement for Baldwin and the clutch catches he so frequently provided. Heading into training camp, it seems likely that David Moore will get the first opportunity after catching 26 passes for 445 yards last season.

Regardless of who fills in for Baldwin, though, it's highly unlikely they'll be able to replicate his consistent production. Seattle might be the most play-action heavy team in the league next year, but without a consistent intermediate presence, it gets considerably easier to anticipate and defend.

NFL Preview 2019: Highlighting each NFC West team's most impactful rookie

NFL Preview 2019: Highlighting each NFC West team's most impactful rookie

It's a crucial season for the NFC West.

The 49ers, in year three of the Kyle Shanahan-John Lynch era, need to take a step forward, or seats will get hot.

The Rams, after losing in the Super Bowl, need to capitalize on their championship window while it's still open.

The Seahawks, coming off a surprising 10-6 campaign, need to avoid the dropoff that many expected was coming last year.

And the Cardinals ... well, the Cardinals need to not be historically bad.

Aiding each of the four NFC West teams in their crucial seasons is a rookie that they're counting on making a major impact in their first year in the NFL.

Here's a closer look at those promising young players:

San Francisco 49ers: Nick Bosa

Once again, the 49ers used their first-round draft pick on a defensive lineman, but Bosa might be the best of them all.

He's got the talent, the attitude and the pedigree to become one of the most dominant pass rushers in the game.

Bosa is expected to start at defensive end from Day 1, and should form a devastating inside-outside pass-rushing tandem with Pro Bowl defensive tackle DeForest Buckner.

[RELATED: Bosa appears ready for Week 1 after posing workout photos]

If Bosa lives up to expectations, the 49ers could have one of the best defensive lines in all of the NFL.

Arizona Cardinals: Kyler Murray

Assuming he stays healthy, Murray likely will be the most impactful of all the rookies in the NFL, due mainly to his position.

The No. 1 overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft will take over behind center for the Cardinals, after Arizona shipped last year's rookie starter -- Josh Rosen -- to Miami.

Murray won the Heisman Trophy at Oklahoma after showcasing his ability to dominate the game with both his arms and his legs. His athleticism is off the charts, but in order for him to be successful, Arizona's offensive line will need to do a much better job after allowing 52 sacks and 109 quarterback hits last season.

Seattle Seahawks: DK Metcalf

If a computer were to generate a prototype to play wide receiver in the NFL, it would look a lot like Metcalf.

With blazing straight-line speed and muscles upon muscles, Metcalf is a sight to see, when he isn't a blur. He was the talk of the NFL Combine after posting a 4.33-second 40-yard dash and 40.5-inch vertical at 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds.

Metcalf's strengths will be utilized in Seattle's play-action attack, as quarterback Russell Wilson now has both he and fellow speedster Tyler Lockett to find with the deep ball.

Physically, at least, Metcalf is already ready to dominate as a rookie.

Los Angeles Rams: Darrell Henderson

From top to bottom, the Rams might have the best roster in the league, so it's not going to be easy for any rookie to get significant playing time. Henderson, though, might be a different case.

The running back averaged 8.2 yards per carry over his three-year college career at Memphis, and caught 63 passes for 758 yards.

Given that Los Angeles seems inclined to scale back Todd Gurley's workload, Henderson could pick up the resulting slack as a dynamic change-of-pace back.

If Gurley were to miss any extended time, Henderson would be a main beneficiary, and you can bet head coach Sean McVay has been salivating coming up with ways to deploy him.