December 12, 2018

San Francisco 49ers
INSIDE SLANT

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  Backups getting chance with 49ers

In the San Francisco 49ers' grand vision of the 2018 season three months ago, Nick Mullens and Jeff Wilson Jr. would be the team's quarterback and running back today ...

On the practice squad.

Instead, the third-stringers find themselves leading the 49ers up against the playoffs-chasing Denver Broncos, hoping maybe that another impressive performance will turn them into next year's ...

Well, that's the problem.

The 49ers already have their 2019 quarterback and primary running back picked out. They are Jimmy Garoppolo and Jerick McKinnon, both of whom are recovering from knee injuries.

And they already have the NFC's seventh-leading rusher, Matt Breida, as a leading candidate to be the No. 2 back, to say nothing of former third-round pick C.J. Beathard, already a 10-game starter in his career, as a capable backup at quarterback.

So no matter how well Mullens and Wilson do, it seems all they can do is create an additional problem rather than solve one or two of the many when they seek to further impress against the Broncos.

Don't get third-string confused with shouldn't-be-here.

Mullens, undrafted out of Southern Mississippi last year, already has given indications that he's going to be employed (somewhere) for a while. His 414 passing yards at Seattle in Week 13 were the most for a 49er in 14 years.

It was his second impressive outing in four starts. He led the 49ers to one of their two victories in Week 9 against the Raiders.

Wilson burst onto the scene in Seattle, running head-first into defenders so often, you'd have thought he was auditioning to play strong safety for the Seahawks.

He came away with 134 total yards on 23 touches (15 rushes, eight receptions) ... and a bruised foot some say was inevitable given his wrecking-ball style.

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan was asked this week if he or his staff had approached Wilson about downshifting a notch or two for self-preservation.

"No," the coach responded. "That's his style. That's what got him an opportunity in this league. That's what he does best. That's why he's going to make it.

"I hope he doesn't lose that, for his and our sakes. He runs hard and that's what he does good. Hopefully, we can keep him healthy and he keeps getting better and better."

It's possible Wilson, undrafted out of North Texas this past spring, could be a short-yardage specialist given his style and the fact that neither McKinnon nor Breida is a between-the-tackles type. Despite his eight catches at Seattle, he's unlikely to be a third-down option, with both other guys being much more elusive.

That said, Shanahan admitted he was pleasantly surprised with the variety of pass-catching options Wilson provided in Seattle.

"We planned on throwing some screens. I hope you can catch the screens," the coach said of the simplest form of pass-catching. "But he had a real impressive third down. I think it was the first third down of the game.

"It was versus man-to-man. He ran a five-yard in route versus some tight coverage. I thought that was a real impressive one."

It isn't often teams scout two-win clubs, but the 49ers just might have uncovered two gems who could be starters next season.

Just not in San Francisco.



SERIES HISTORY: 14th regular-season meeting. Broncos lead series, 7-6. Broncos won most recent meeting 42-17 at home in Week 7 of 2014. Last 49ers win came in London, 24-16 in Week 8 of 2010. 49ers haven't won at home against Broncos since 34-17 in Week 16 of 1997. The clubs met in the Super Bowl following the 1989 season, with San Francisco winning 55-10 in New Orleans