The 49ers are going to miss tight end George Kittle on Sunday against the New York Giants. Kittle won't play for the second consecutive week due to a sprained MCL.
Arguably no player will miss Kittle as much as quarterback Nick Mullens.
Mullens will start Sunday at MetLife Stadium in place of injured QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who sustained a high ankle sprain on the same field against the New York Jets in Week 2. Sunday marks Mullens' first start since Dec. 31, 2018, and he'll take the field without his favorite target from that season.
Mullens completed 51 of 79 passes (64.5 percent) to Kittle for 793 yards and three touchdowns over the final eight weeks of the 2018 season. The next-most targeted receivers during that stretch -- Dante Pettis and Kendrick Bourne -- combined to catch 49 passes for 667 yards and six TDs.
The good news for Mullens and the 49ers is that the next man up proved he could fill the void. Jordan Reed started in Kittle's place last week, catching seven passes (on eight targets) for 50 yards and two touchdowns. Reed made a Pro Bowl in 2016, so Mullens should still have some kind of security blanket at tight end, even if Reed's not the one he's used to targeting.
Whereas Mullens might lament Kittle's absence, Pettis could relish reconnecting with the QB. While Bourne already is on pace for a career high in receiving yards (808) and receptions (48), Pettis has been targeted just once in the first two weeks of the season. Pettis' best stretch of his career came with Mullens under center, and rekindling his chemistry with the 49ers' backup quarterback could go a long way toward jump-starting his season.
The 49ers went 3-5 in Mullens' eight starts in 2018, in large part because of Kittle's dominance. They're now a much deeper team now than they were two years ago, and Mullens thinks he's a better QB.
Sunday will be a true measure of just how far Mullens and his team have come.