Ahead of Sunday's game against the Houston Texans, Jimmy Garoppolo's availability is uncertain as he has officially been listed as "doubtful" with a Grade 3 sprain of his ulnar collateral ligament in his right thumb and has missed all three of the week's practices. Yet, the 49ers are still hopeful that Garoppolo can return to the field in advance of Sunday's contest.
With the veteran's status in question, there is a likely chance that San Francisco may rely on rookie quarterback Trey Lance in a must-win contest for the 49ers in their race to the playoffs.
In Lance's first NFL start, the rookie quarterback led his team through a matchup that statistically outperformed the Arizona Cardinals, an undefeated team in Week 5. The Lance-led 49ers team notched 338 total net yards (5.7 average gain) while the Cardinals earned 304 (5.1 average gain); San Francisco especially dominating in the run game where they earned 58 more rushing yards than Arizona and a longer time of possession (SF - 31:54, AZ - 28:06).
But Lance's debut wasn't all perfect, as he finished 15-of-29 passing for 192 yards and one interception in a contest that ended in a loss for the 49ers. However, San Francisco's offense may be a more dynamic group than they were in Week 5.
Tight end George Kittle is now a weapon the rookie quarterback can target who wasn't available earlier in the season due to a calf injury that sat him out for three games. Since his injury, Kittle has shined in his comeback and has become the only tight end in NFL history with back-to-back games of at least 150 receiving yards in Weeks 13 and 14. With history in mind, it is possible that the tight end can reach his third-career 1,000-yard season on Sunday as he is only 129 yards away from the feat.
"Trey's looked good," Kittle said. "The last couple months there's been a huge improvement… he just looks more mature in the pocket."
Although healthy during Lance's start, wide receiver Brandon Aiyuk has taken on a bigger role and re-emerged as a star receiver. After seeing just 16 targets through the first six games of the season, his share has nearly quadrupled in the second half of the season, garnering 55 targets over the last nine games. In the Week 5 contest, Aiyuk caught two receptions from the rookie quarterback for 32 yards. And a growing rapport should open up more opportunities for the wideout on Sunday against Houston's 19th-ranked pass defense.
"If we're in the right spots and where we're supposed to be, we know that (the quarterback will) be trusting in us," Aiyuk said. "If we take care of our part it's not too much to worry about on their end."
According to head coach Kyle Shanahan, Elijah Mitchell has "a chance" to play in Week 17 against the Texans after missing the last three games with a knee injury. His return could add an extra boost to the 49ers run game – a unit that has improved as of late.
As the 49ers recent RB1, Jeff Wilson Jr. has proven his ability and appears to become stronger and stronger in each game's passing. Against the Atlanta Falcons in Week 15, Wilson Jr. rushed for 110 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries. Last week, the rusher notched 45 yards and a score on 14 attempts. In the last three games, San Francisco has earned 345 total rushing yards that ranks seventh overall in the league. Recording over 100 yards in half of his games, Mitchell can possibly add another element to the 49ers run game this time around.
Accompanied by a loaded offense, the rookie quarterback seems to be stepping under center comfortably.
"Guys believe in Trey, guys expect him to go out there and play well," Shanahan said. "He knows how to handle the part, he knows how to get in the huddle, he takes command and his preparation is very impressive. That gives the guys a lot of confidence in him."
A lot has changed for Lance since his initial career start in Week 5. After his first in-game snaps, he has developed on the 49ers scout team by emulating a multitude of quarterback styles and creating plays that catch the attention of his coaches and veteran teammates, while also directly learning from Garoppolo's season highs and lows.
"I don't know if Jimmy's going to be able to go or not, but for me to be able to get those reps was huge," Lance said. "Whether I go on Sunday or not, I think I gained a lot from it."
Although a starting quarterback has not been named yet, the 49ers are set to face the Texans at Levi's® Stadium on Sunday, January 2nd at 1:05 p.m. PT for their fight for a chance in the postseason.