There are only three quarterbacks in NFL history to ever throw for 250+ yards, three touchdowns, and zero interceptions in their NFL debut. Those quarterbacks: Fran Tarkenton, Jim Kelly, and Nick Mullens. Of course, Tarkenton and Kelly never had the chance to play in Kyle Shanahan’s quarterback-friendly offense, nor did they ever have the opportunity to play against the porous 2018 Raiders defense. So, was it Nick Mullens that did well on Thursday Night Football, or was it a mix of the other two factors that those two all-time quarterbacks didn’t have the benefit to work with? It’s a mix of all three.
The box score doesn’t tell the story of Nick Mullen’s NFL debut. The 6’1″ undrafted former Southern Mississippi star shredded the Raiders defense. But, there was no meaningful NFL tape on the 23-year-old 49ers quarterback, leading to an unprepared defense that didn’t know just how good Mullens’ arm just is.
When I rewatched the 49ers versus Raiders game, I tracked every single throw from Mullens. First, I counted how many of his throws were purely accurate or not, then I tracked if he made the right read to an open man, after that, I looked at how he did under pressure. The results; he threw some beautiful passes while making proper reads in both a clean and congested pocket.
Out of his 22 passes that I looked that, I noted that he threw just three inaccurate passes, either underthrows, overthrows, or throwing to tight coverage. There were 19 passes that I considered as accurate passes, while one of those was a drop. Meaning that he threw an accurate pass 86.36% of the time. But, a quarterbacks accuracy doesn’t tell the story.
The Raiders defense is bad, really bad, therefore it’s hard to tell if Mullens made a proper read or if the defense just in terrible coverage and couldn’t cover their man? During the game, I counted how many times Mullens threw the ball into tight coverage, open coverage, and how many screens passes he threw. The totals: 14 throws to an open player, five throws in tight coverages, and three screen passes. What does this mean? It means that Mullens was throwing to a wide open player 63.63% of the time, he forced the ball 22.72% of the time, while he threw a screen pass 13.63% of the time. These are really solid numbers, but a lot of quarterbacks have these types of numbers against the Raiders defense. That defense has not been able to create consistent pressure, in turn giving Mullens time to throw.
Out of Mullens 22 throws, 17 of those throws were not under pressure. He completed 13 of those passes, a 76.47% completion rate while in a clean pocket. In the five throws while he was under pressure Mullens missed just two passes, which is a 60.00% completion rate. That 60.00% under pressure percentage really stands out to me, despite only being under pressure on only 22.72 percent of his throws is a very impressive number. For comparison, Tom Brady led the NFL in completion percentage under pressure last year with 58.97%. But, that number will go down, the Raiders defensive front had a tough time creating pressure against the 49ers rather weak offensive line. If he somehow keeps up that percentage, Mullens will be a top quarterback in the NFL.
So what do all of these numbers mean for Mullens? It means that he threw a good pass most of the time, either will being pressured or in a clean pocket. He also made correct reads to open players for a majority of his snaps and was able to handle pressure. The problem with all those numbers is that the Raiders defense isn’t hard to play against, therefore creating a skewed small sample size.
Mullens threw some beautiful passes, that a lot of quarterbacks can’t make. Notice how the ball never really goes over 10 feet in the air on the play above, enabling the ball to move down the field quickly. The ball goes over the defenders head and drops down to Pierre Garcons arms. That’s a really good pass, I don’t care what defense that is on, that’s a beautiful pass. That pass shows just how strong Mullens arm is and he can influence those 20+ yard passes with accuracy and good touch. That’s what I like most of Mullens game, he has a strong enough arm which lets him throw accurately down the field.
Look at this pass in tight coverage to George Kittle. Sure, the pass wasn’t completely accurate, and it was a risky pass. But, Mullens was under pressure. He went through his reads, found nobody open, and passed a laser to only where Kittle can catch the ball. He floated the ball over the Raiders heads, but he didn’t do so too high for an interception. That shows just how strong his arm is, he was able to push the ball down the field well with both accuracy and good touch. That’s a fantastic pass, that a lot of quarterbacks just can’t make. For Mullens, that was too easy.
Mullens had some moments that Mullens is not a complete product (an obvious statement for an undrafted players NFL debut). Notice the play above, this was Mullens worst read of the night. But was it an underthrow or communication error with Pierre Garcon? I’d say that it was a communication error, as Mullens didn’t throw the ball even close to the end zone, his arm is a lot stronger than that. I believe that Mullens thought the route Garcon was running was a comeback route, while Garcon ran a go route. But, notice how Richie James (No. 13) was wide open in the seam here, this signifies two things: that route by Garcon was a go-to force the free safety to run towards his side to open up the seam, and Mullens didn’t make a proper read here. And that improper read is okay because the reality of the story is that Mullens has never played in the NFL, and he will make mistakes. Every quarterback does. But, this was Mullens worst mistake of the night.
For as good as Mullens was when throwing down the field with both velocity and touch, he needs to improve on his accuracy in the red zone. A lot of that can be credited to his 6’1″ stature as he can’t throw over linemen, forcing him to find lanes to throw the ball through. That height is something Mullens can’t change, and he will need to adapt to. He won’t be able to throw quick passes with the line in front of him which forces him to float the ball. This pass below was more of a bad read, but you will see that he throws the ball too high. What I’d like to see here is for Mullens to get out of the pocket by sliding right to buy time for his receiver that’s crossing over the middle of the field. Moving past the line is what he will need to do, and how he scored three touchdowns. His size just won’t help him in throwing from the pocket on the end zone, but he is solid while throwing on the run. In the future, we will see Shanahan dial up more bootleg passes to mask Mullen’s height when in the end zone. That same strategy has been utilized by Russell Wilson and Pete Carrol so well and should be used in San Francisco.
Sure, Mullens made mistakes, but he also showed an understanding of an NFL defense. For as bad as the Raiders defense is, Mullens hasn’t played against an NFL defense ever, making the Raiders defense to be the best defense he essentially has ever played against. And he tore that defense up.
Watch how quick Mullens made a decision on the play above. It was only a six-yard pass, but he got it to Richie James Jr (No. 13) so fast that James could run for 47 more yards. Mullens quickly realizes that the speedy James has inside leverage to get a good pass off, and he takes advantage of this, throwing the ball in 1.57 seconds. If Mullens waited for James to get a little more open, he wouldn’t have allowed for this pass to go for 53 yards. He saw the Raiders were in man coverage and made the perfect pass to take advantage of it. That’s just a really smart, and quick read, to go along with an accurate pass in front of James to keep him in stride. That’s just not what you see out of an undrafted prospect. You might see a strong arm from one of those project players, but it’s rare to see such fast reads and decision making to go along with an accurate pass.
So what would I grade Mullens NFL debut? I’d give him a B+, he did really well, but that was against a bad defense. I would raise that grade to an A- if Mullens had been facing any other defense, but he wasn’t. He was not pressured for most of his throws, and he benefitted from huge yards after the catch throws. Mullens doesn’t have the deep-ball arm talent that a Mathew Stafford has, but, his arm is strong enough to get the ball to his receivers in the short to an intermidiate range. Despite that, Mullens made some beautiful passes and showed he can make decisions quickly. He should be the starter for the 49ers going forward, and I believe he has the potential for a long career in the NFL.