Here are five things to watch when the 49ers close their season Sunday against the Rams in Los Angeles.
Preventing Aaron Donald from reaching the record
Defensive tackle Aaron Donald leads the NFL with 19.5 sacks, putting him three behind Michael Strahan’s season record of 22.5 in 2002. The 49ers have made it clear they don’t want to be on the wrong side of Donald breaking that mark, which would be an extraordinary accomplishment for a defensive tackle. He already holds the season record for sacks by an interior player.
Donald had a career-best four sacks the last time he played the 49ers on Oct. 21 in a 39-10 blowout. Those came against C.J. Beathard, who gets rid of the ball noticeably slower than new starter Nick Mullens, who has taken just under three sacks per game. Beathard took 3.6 in his five starts.
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Donald might be able to take advantage of center Weston Richburg, who has been dealing with a knee injury since Week 4. Richburg allowed two of seven sacks yielded by San Francisco in the previous matchup.
A slew of backups at the skill positions
The 49ers ruled out running back Matt Breida (ankle) and receiver Dante Pettis (knee) early in the week. They’ll also be without wideout Marquise Goodwin, who suffered a calf contusion in the loss to the Bears.
That means the club’s only healthy receivers are Kendrick Bourne, Trent Taylor, Richie James and Steven Dunbar Jr., who was promoted from the practice squad this week.
Those four players combined this season have 66 receptions for 724 yards. Rams starting receivers Robert Woods and Brandon Cooks have 84 catches for 1,195 yards and 75 for 1,1142.
San Francisco is missing its top two options at “X” receiver - Goodwin and Pettis. That will force coach Kyle Shanahan to get creative aligning his receivers. Bourne played “X” in spurts early in the season but doesn’t have the speed typical of the position, which could lead to James moving to that role from the slot, where Taylor fits best.
Toughest test yet for young defenders
San Francisco’s young group of emerging defenders will face a tough challenge against the NFL’s second-ranked offense.
Since rookie strong safety Marcell Harris was inserted into the starting lineup Dec. 2, three of his best games came at home after a shaky debut in Seattle. He hasn’t faced an offense as potent as the Rams. Seattle, Denver and Chicago rank 18th, 20th and 21st.
Harris and fellow youngsters such as linebackers Elijah Lee and Fred Warner, safety Antone Exum Jr. and defensive back D.J. Reed should have their hands full, as the Rams need a victory to ensure a first-round bye in the playoffs.
But Sean McVay’s offense has sputtered lately. The Rams have dropped two of their last three, with their 31-9 victory over the 3-12 Cardinals breaking a two-game skid against Chicago and Philadelphia.
Quarterback Jared Goff hasn’t been the same since receiver Cooper Kupp tore an ACL in Week 10. Goff averaged 322 yards passing per game through 11 games, but that has dropped precipitously to 236 over the past four games.
Further, he’ll be without star running back Todd Gurley for a second straight week with a knee injury. Recently acquired C.J. Anderson had 167 yards and a touchdown last week in Arizona.
How long until Nick Mullens starts again, and for whom?
The 49ers hope Sunday is the last game Nick Mullens starts for quite some time. Jimmy Garoppolo will remain the starter.
The questions become: When will Mullens start again, and will it be with the 49ers?
Mullens, a 2017 undrafted rookie, signed a two-year contract, meaning he’ll become an exclusive-rights free agent in 2020. San Francisco in all likelihood would maintain his negotiating rights for that season before hitting restricted free agency in 2021.
Simply put, Mullens could be a cheap, controllable asset to a team over the next two-plus seasons, which could make him an intriguing trade candidate.
But a good argument can be made he’s more valuable to the 49ers than any other team. They still need two quarterbacks to run the offseason program while Garoppolo continues his rehab (he likely won’t be cleared to resume practicing until May or June, at the earliest). The team has just six draft picks and would surely like to avoid taking a quarterback.
Additionally, Mullens’ success has largely been a product of Shanahan’s coaching and scheme. There’s no knowing how well he would play in new surroundings running a different system.
On the other hand, the 49ers have kept two quarterbacks on the active roster for most of Shanahan’s tenure, which could lead to Mullens or C.J. Beathard being traded before next season.
How that shakes out will depend on how the rest of the league views the 49ers’ backup quarterbacks.
NFL draft order update
The 49ers head into the finale with a wide range of possible outcomes regarding the NFL draft order. They’ll pick between Nos. 1 and 5, but that’s the only certainty.
As one of three teams (with the Jets and Raiders) with a 4-11 record, San Francisco sits in the No. 2 slot.
The 49ers could jump to No. 1 with their 12th loss and an unlikely win for Arizona at Seattle. The Seahawks clinched a playoff spot with their victory over the Chiefs last Sunday night but would prefer the No. 5 seed rather than No. 6, which would be the difference in playing the likely No. 3 seed Chicago Bears and No. 4 Dallas Cowboys.
All three 4-11 teams face clubs with playoff positioning on the line. The Jets play the Patriots, who need to win to ensure a first-round bye and could still get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. The Raiders play at Kansas City, which would wrap up the No. 1 overall seed in the AFC with a victory. The Rams need a win for a first-round bye.