Michael Zagaris / Contributor
SANTA CLARA — Nearly two years ago, on Christmas Eve, the 49ers beat the Los Angeles Rams in a game you probably don’t remember. The 22-21 win carried no playoff significance, giving the 49ers just their second victory of the season. But it gave the Cleveland Browns the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. They selected defensive end Myles Garrett, who is likely to play in his first Pro Bowl at the conclusion of his second season. The 49ers traded down for the No. 3 pick and used it to select Solomon Thomas, who is still trying to prove he is more than a rotational player.
That narrow win helped perpetuate a major void, one the 49ers still feel. The absence of a game-changing pass rusher has continued to limit the potential of this 49ers defense. Garrett probably would have been that missing puzzle piece.
The 49ers beat the visiting Seattle Seahawks, 26-23, Sunday. And similar to that 2016 situation, the 49ers (4-10) no longer own the league’s worst record, which now belongs to the Oakland Raiders and Arizona Cardinals, both sitting at 3-11. The 49ers are currently projected to pick No. 4 in the 2019 NFL Draft, not No. 1, as they were prior to this week.
For the past month, the “Tank for Nick Bosa” catchphrase has hummed louder as the 49ers sunk to irrelevance. Bosa, the coveted Ohio State product, is considered as the top prospect in this upcoming draft class, a carbon copy of his Pro Bowl defensive end of an older brother, Joey.
The No. 1 pick, and Bosa, is probably gone. But before you dub Sunday’s win as a bad thing — isn’t that a paradox? — consider this situation is very different from the one two years ago, for the below reasons.
There is value in this win.
It won’t contribute to the 49ers’ playoff chances because those vanished last month, and probably when Jimmy Garoppolo went down in Week 3 with a season-ending knee injury. Sunday’s win does, however, carry plenty of future value for a young team still learning how to win.
Throughout the past five years, the 49ers had not beaten the Seattle Seahawks. And throughout this season, the 49ers lost close games after leading late.
They bucked both trends Sunday. They beat the Seahawks for the first time in 11 tries — in a game that mattered. With a win Sunday, Seattle would have clinched a playoff birth. There is value in beating your arch-rival, ruining its opportunity to celebrate on your field, and ending a streak that has been a talking point for the past two-plus years.
Finally, the 49ers gritted out a victory. They have emphasized finishing all year but rarely have executed it. Their defense stepped up and prevented a vintage Russell Wilson game-winning drive, twice. The offense moved the ball downfield to give Robbie Gould a 36-yard field goal for the win in overtime, which he executed. This young 49ers team, filled with rookies and sophomores, has to learn how to win these games, against this opponent, for next year and beyond.
That 2016 Christmas Eve game featured just 12 players currently still playing for the 49ers. Sunday’s win featured players largely responsible for the 49ers’ future success.
The 2019 draft class is loaded with edge rushers. 2017 was not.
Garrett was widely considered the best edge rusher in the class, capable of transforming a defense. There weren’t many additional players with a similar label, but there are in the upcoming class.
You have Kentucky’s Josh Allen, who had 14.5 sacks, 18 tackles for a loss, and five forced fumbles this year. You have Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell, who averaged 10 sacks and nearly 18 tackles for a loss in the past two seasons. You have Michigan’s Rashan Gary, a former No. 1 high school recruit who has the size and speed the 49ers currently lack on the edge.
Bosa may ultimately prove to be the best of the crop, but that’s hard to conclude at this point, particularly when his 2018 season ended after just three games. The 49ers can still draft a blue chip prospect capable of solving those edge-rush shortcomings.
Another Nick Mullens win boosts his trade value.
It’s time to start talking about Mullens as a legitimate NFL quarterback. He is now 3-3 as a starter, which include two straight wins. He completed 20 of 29 passes for 275 yards and one touchdown in Sunday’s victory. He has posted 1,754 yards, 10 touchdowns, six interceptions, and a 96.0 quarterback rating in six games.
Kyle Shanahan is unwaveringly loyal to C.J. Beathard despite his 1-9 record as a starter. Earlier this week, Shanahan said the race between Mullens and Beathard for the backup quarterback position next season is “dead even,” despite Mullens clearly outplaying his competition. If Shanahan is content with Beathard as the backup next year, the 49ers could receive some value by trading Mullens to a team with quarterback issues. Richard Sherman seems to think Mullens is worthy.
The bottomline: there are plenty of positives from the 49ers win, despite it hurting their chances for the No. 1 pick. And sometimes, it’s nicer to enjoy wins than envisioning them in future years.