The San Francisco 49ers win last season against the Houston Texans was supposed to be Greg Mabin's coming out party. San Francisco was getting torched by DeAndre Hopkins. Houston's star receiver had seven receptions for 91 yards and a touchdown in the first half. Hopkins opened the second half with a 29-yard score for his second touchdown of the game.
That's when the 49ers turned to Mabin. The rookie corner helped slow Hopkins for the rest of the game as the 49ers held on for a 26-16 road victory.
"That game was more of a confirmation for me, just because he's easily a top five talent at receiver in this league. It definitely wasn't all me. It was all 11 working together, but I was able to do my job against him and play pretty well. That gave me confidence moving forward."
The 49ers were Mabin's third team, having previously been signed and cut by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Buffalo Bills. Such is life as an undrafted free agent. San Francisco added Mabin to the team's practice squad in October before calling him up to the active roster on Nov. 1. After the Houston game, he figured to be starter over the final three weeks of the season.
Unfortunately, Mabin suffered a calf strain at practice a few days later and put the kibosh on his opportunity.
"It was discouraging," Mabin said. "At first, I wasn't sure if I was going to get that chance ever again."
The 49ers had seen enough to keep Mabin on the roster heading into 2018. However, Jimmie Ward moved from safety back to corner, Ahkello Witherspoon seemed locked in as a starter, San Francisco drafted Tarvarius Moore in the third round and Richard Sherman signed with the 49ers during free agency. Put simply, Mabin faced an uphill climb at earning another shot.
"My mindset was to learn my role and to play that role to the best of my ability," Mabin said. "Whether it was scout team, practice squad, special teams or starter – whatever my role is, I want to be able to play that to the best of my ability."
San Francisco called Mabin's number once again in Week 4 against the Los Angeles Chargers. With Sherman out due to a calf injury and inconsistent play from others, Mabin was once again the man who provided a boost to the defense. The second-year corner posted four tackles and a forced fumble in 29 snaps against the Chargers.
"He played hard," Sherman said on Thursday. "He brought energy and intensity. We were happy about it. The coaches had been talking about him for weeks. He's had amazing days in practice. He's been incredible – locked in and executing. It was good to see him get his opportunity."
Another strong week of practice will almost force the coaching staff to keep Mabin on the field in Week 5 against the Arizona Cardinals.
"I'm going to prepare this week like I do every other week," Mabin said. "I'm going to know the ins and outs of everything. I'm going to study hard and go out there and give myself the best chance to play well."
C.J. Beathard and George Kittle are a pair of Iowa alums who are garnering much of the attention in San Francisco right now. But Mabin makes it a trio of former Hawkeyes who you should be watching on Sunday against Larry Fitzgerald and Co.