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SANTA CLARA — Nick Mullens’ NFL debut might come Thursday night as the 49ers’ starting quarterback against the Raiders, and it would launch a critical evaluation.
If C.J. Beathard’s right-wrist injury indeed sidelines him, then Mullens will get his first shot at proving he’s a better option to back up a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo come 2019, when the 49ers can regroup from this season’s calamities.
“Guys believe in him and he’s as competitive and confident as any guy I’ve been around,” coach Kyle Shanahan said of Mullens. “If he needs to play this week, he’ll be on it.”
Beathard said X-rays revealed no fractures and he hopes to play Thursday. His well-proven toughness aside, he acknowledged his right wrist and thumb are “kind of messed up,” and he wore a bandage over them.
Beathard is 0-5 since Garoppolo’s season-ending knee injury, 1-9 overall dating to last season’s rookie starts before Garropolo replaced him.
Beathard banged his wrist on a helmet in the second quarter of Sunday’s 18-15 loss at Arizona, and even though he didn’t miss a snap, he did not practice in Tuesday’s walk-through session. His availability for Thursday will be a game-time decision, Shanahan said.
“He’s struggling today to hold the ball, and we’ll see how he is tomorrow,” Shanahan said. “C.J. would be good if we’re playing on Sunday. It’s going to be a test for Thursday and we probably won’t know until then.”
It’s not as if the 49ers need to exaggerate Beathard’s uncertain status to confound the Raiders (1-6). Whether he plays or not Thursday, Beathard has struggled enough this season (18 sacks, seven interceptions, three lost fumbles) to give the 49ers pause, whereas Mullens is a greater mystery.
Comparing and contrasting the quarterbacks has basically been limited to the practice field, exhibition games and classrooms. A year ago, Garoppolo joined the fray, and the starting role is his for years to come, but the backup spot in 2019 is key if he’s not fully recovered from anterior cruciate ligament surgery.
“I prepare like I’m going to start from Day 1. So that’s the focus: prepare and let the week play out,” Mullens said. “You’ve got to play the game in your head before it actually plays out, so that’s what I’ve done this week.”
Wide receiver Trent Taylor is among those who knows the quarterbacks well, so his insights are worth noting.
On Beathard, he said: “We all know he’s a guy who’s going to lay his body on the line and do what it takes to win.”
On Mullens, Taylor said: “He just loves football. He’s not the loudest guy in the world but when he’s on the field he’s juiced up and brings a lot of energy.”
Mullens (6-foot-1, 210 pounds) broke several Southern Miss records that once belonged to Brett Favre, and after going undrafted in 2017, Mullens signed with the 49ers.
Running back Matt Breida, another undrafted free agent in 2017, gushed about Mullens’ makeup: “He’s a baller. He doesn’t let the game get to big for him. … If he has to play, I’m not worried at all. He may be a third-stringer but he can be a starter some day.”
— Cam Inman (@CamInman) October 30, 2018
Mullens, 23, showed promise (“Mullens magic”) this past exhibition season, and he was promoted from the practice squad in Week 4 after Garoppolo’s season-ending knee injury. Mullens also spent all of last season on the practice squad.
The only other quarterback they have is Tom Savage, a former Houston Texans starter who has spent the past three weeks learning Shanahan’s complex system and would need it scaled back if he’s forced to play Thursday.
As for the Raiders, Mullens started studying them Monday, adding: “They’re a good defense, so we’ll try to attack and play it out.”
— The 49ers made no trade-deadline deals, a year after swinging one for Garoppolo. As for Pierre Garçon staying put, Shanahan said: “I’m excited about that. Pierre’s excited about that. He’s still limited (with a knee injury) but I’d be surprised if he can’t make it on Thursday.”
— Wide receiver Victor Bolden Jr. and cornerback Greg Mabin were waived. Those roster spots could be earmarked for safety Marcell Harris and outside linebacker Dekoda Watson as they look poised to come off the injured reserve list.
— Safety Antone Exum (concussion) won’t play Thursday night and Jaquiski Tartt (shoulder) might not either, which could prompt the debut of Harris, a sixth-round pick who’s been out with a hamstring injury. Exum and Tartt did not practice Tuesday, nor did linebacker Reuben Foster. Tyvis Powell, who gave up two fourth-quarter touchdowns in his relief duty Sunday, could get a chance to make amends Thursday night, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said.
— Limited Tuesday: Garcon, running backs Matt Breida (ankle) and Raheem Mostert (ankle), cornerback Richard Sherman (calf, heel) and linemen Joe Staley (ankle), Mike Person (ankle) and Weston Richburg (knee).