SANTA CLARA – Quarterback Nick Mullens is showing no signs of going away any time soon.
First impressions carry a lot of weight in the NFL, and Mullens has performed admirably in his first four starts since being elevated into a starting role with the 49ers. And his play through four starts would seem to suggest he has proven capable of more opportunities in the future.
“I try to leave a good impression every time I step on the field, not just by how I play, but how I influence my teammates and the passion that I play with,” Mullens said Wednesday, as he prepares to make his fifth consecutive NFL start.
“So, obviously, I hope it’s a good impression really to myself. I just try to outdo myself every week and that’s kind of what matters.”
Mullens, 23, has completed 64.5 percent of his pass attempts for 1,147 yards with seven touchdowns, five interceptions and a passer rating of 91.5. He entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent and spent his entire rookie season on the 49ers’ practice squad.
The 49ers might not have expected Mullens to play this week, but coach Kyle Shanahan said he knew Mullens would give himself a chance to succeed.
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“I knew it was a possibility because he’s very consistent in everything he does," Shanahan said.
Shanahan said he knew because of the opponents, Mullens would have a chance to have a strong game against the Raiders and the New York Giants. Mullens and the 49ers struggled against Tampa Bay before facing the difficult assignment of going to Seattle.
"I was real impressed last week versus Seattle," Shanahan said. "Mainly, I knew how hard it would be for him, let alone any quarterback not being used to there and just the situation we were in. He got off to a rough start in the first quarter. But I was really impressed how he rebounded after that. I think we all settled down a little bit after that first quarter, and I thought he played three quarters of pretty good football.”
Mullens completed 30 of 48 pass attempts for 414 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in the 49ers' 43-16 loss to the Seahawks.
The 49ers play the Denver Broncos on Sunday, and the starting quarterback on the other side has already proven it is possible to take that same route to a long NFL career.
Case Keenum spent his rookie year of 2012 on the practice squad of the Houston Texans. Mullens said he has has done some research on quarterbacks who succeeded without being high draft picks. Keenum is near the top of the list.
“He’s definitely a guy that I’ve looked at his path, see how he’s gone,” Mullens said of Keenum. “He’s a great quarterback. He’s earned everything that he’s gotten in his career and that’s what I respect the most about him. He’s a good player. He’s doing a great job for them right now in their streak and I’ve got a lot of respect for him.”
Keenum earned his most extensive action last season with the Minnesota Vikings. He had 22 touchdown passes and seven interceptions with a passer rating of 98.3. The Vikings went 11-3 in his starts. He signed a two-year, $36 million contract with the Broncos in the offseason. After a slow start, Keenum and the Broncos have rallied with consecutive victories over the Los Angeles Chargers, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.
Mullens knows he will never be handed anything in his career. And his future with the 49ers beyond this season remains unsettled. Jimmy Garoppolo, the starting quarter, is expected to be ready for organized team activities. The 49ers have also not given up on C.J. Beathard as the backup.
But at a time when Washington remains in the playoff hunt with Mark Sanchez and Josh Johnson on its roster, it is clear there will continue to be a demand for quarterbacks who can pick up a scheme and get an offense to function.
Mullens is expected to challenge for the 49ers’ backup job next year, and could convince the team to keep three quarterbacks on the roster next season.
Regardless, he has played his way into the picture for future NFL jobs.