SANTA CLARA — Ahead of the 2017 NFL Draft, Pro Football Focus’s scouting report on Nick Mullens stated that the Southern Mississippi quarterback’s “small build and stature [was] worrisome,” and that “his lack of size and arm speed are two major concerns in his transition to the NFL.”
Those concerns led to Mullens going undrafted, and eventually landing in San Francisco as a member of the 49ers practice squad later that year.
This season, Mullens was presented with the opportunity to shed all of the doubts that surrounded his young career, when both Jimmy Garoppolo and then C.J. Beathard went down with injuries. In five games, the 23-year-old has thrown for nearly 1,500 yards.
“I understand my limitations but I also understand what strengths I had,” Mullens said. “I never expected to get drafted, to be honest, and if I did, it would have been really cool. I’m just glad I got my opportunity and it’s been good enough.”
In 2016, during his junior year, Mullens set a single-season passing record at Southern Miss by throwing for 4,476 yards. The next year, he threw for 3,272 yards, solidifying himself as the school’s most productive quarterback with 11,994 career passing. With those numbers, and a pair of bowl appearances, Mullens still didn’t receive an invitation to the NFL Combine in Indianapolis in 2017.
“If I showed up at the Combine, I wouldn’t be the biggest, fastest or the strongest,” Mullens said. “I guess evaluators put a lot of thought into that. It’s just part of the deal.”
Standing 6-foot-1 and weighing in at 187 pounds, Mullens does not fit the traditional mold of an NFL quarterback. Kyle Shanahan, who has earned a reputation around the league as a marvelous talent evaluator for offensive players, saw something.
“Some guys have more [talent] than others, but the people who play quarterback in this league consistently and hang around, you have to have the requirement to get into the club,” Shanahan said. “It’s how you play the position, which it’s really tough for people just to see. I’ve never been around anyone who can be good at that stuff if they don’t prepare more than the majority of humans. Nick definitely does that.”
In Shanahan’s book, Mullens’ football IQ and ability to think through the game is what qualified him to be a part of the 49ers organization.
After spending a season-and-a-half on the practice squad in San Francisco, Mullens was given the chance to start against the Oakland Raiders in Week 9 after backup quarterback Beathard — starting after Jimmy Garoppolo tore his ACL in Kansas City — was ruled out with a thumb injury.
With the opportunity in hand, Mullens led the 49ers to their second win of the year: A 32-3 hammering of the 49ers’ cross-bay rivals. In the game, Mullens threw for 262 yards and three touchdowns.
Since Week 9, the Mullens has tallied up 1,479 yards through the air, including 746 in his last two games against the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos — the most any 49ers quarterback has recorded in back-to-back games since Joe Montana had 761 in Weeks 8 and 9 in 1990.
“Nick got his opportunity because of injury. He’s been very consistent in games. He’s played very well, and that’s why he hasn’t lost it,” Shanahan said. “I’m glad that he’s made this hard on us. That’s the goal.”
For now, the starting job at quarterback is Mullens’s to lose, after securing San Francisco’s third win of the year against Denver on Sunday. The victory makes Mullens the 49ers’ winningest QB this season.
“For me the only thing that matters is what I do on the field. It doesn’t matter what I look like or how I throw the ball,” Mullens said. “It’s the result on the field so that’s what I try to focus on each week. I try to pull out good results and work well as a unit together. That’s the biggest thing.”
Practice participation: Defensive end Cassius Marsh (concussion), linebacker Mark Nzeocha (groin), offensive tackle Joe Staley (rest day), safety Jaquiski Tartt (shoulder), and cornerback K’Waun Williams (knee) did not participate in practice.
Running back Matt Breida (ankle), defensive tackle D.J. Jones (back), center Weston Richburg (knee), linebacker Malcolm Smith (achilles) and guard Laken Tomlinson (hip) were limited.