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Fantasy Billboard: The backups you don’t want to see on Super Bowl Sunday

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) takes a snap during an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Loren Elliott)
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Sam Darnold (14) takes a snap during an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Rams in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 7, 2024. (AP Photo/Loren Elliott)

What would the Super Bowl look like if superstars Brock Purdy, Patrick Mahomes, Christian McCaffrey, David Pacheco, George Kittle or Travis Kelce went down with injuries during the game? A bevy of mostly unknown players would have to step up, making the casual NFL fan peer at the TV screen and ask, “Who are those guys?”

Sam Darnold, Backup QB, 49ers — Darnold was taken by the Jets as the third overall pick in the 2018 draft. Dubbed “the next Joe Namath,” he played more like “the next Browning Nagle.” Darnold had a distinguished career at USC, with a 20-4 record. In just two seasons, he threw for 7,229 yards and a staggering 57 TDs. The Jets swapped No. 1 picks to move up with Indianapolis, surrendering three second-round picks in the process. As if that wasn’t enough, the Jets gave Darnold a four-year deal worth $30.25 million fully guaranteed and a $20 million signing bonus. All this without throwing his first NFL pass. Darnold struggled through a dismal rookie year, finishing with a 4-9 record. He lasted just two more seasons with the Jets, saddled with a horrendous offensive line and poor offensive talent around him. He was shipped to Carolina in 2021 for second, fourth and sixth round picks. He lasted two years in Carolina, playing well for another bad team, with an 8-9 record with 16 TDs and 16 INTs. In March of 2023, Darnold went back to his California roots and signed with the 49ers.

If Darnold must step in for Purdy, the 49ers would still have a chance to win the Super Bowl. In his lone 2023 appearance, Darnold impressively threw for 189 yards and a TD in a loss to the L.A. Rams. Kyle Shanahan is smart enough to keep a tight leash on Darnold, favoring the running game and short, controlled passes. The talent around him with Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk and Christian McCaffrey is far superior to the Chiefs’ offensive weapons.

Blaine Gabbert, Backup QB, Chiefs — Mahomes isn’t the only QB with a Super Bowl ring in the game this week. His backup has one too. Gabbert played his college ball at the University of Missouri. He was a 2011 first-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars (10th overall). At age 22, Gabbert became the youngest QB in NFL history to start 14 games, but it was the beginning of a vagabond existence. He lasted just three seasons in Jacksonville, compiling a 5-22 record.

Gabbert bounced around the league from San Francisco to Arizona to Tennessee before joining Tampa Bay in 2019. He separated his shoulder and spent the year on IR, but the Bucs retained him for the 2020 season. It was a fortuitous move as Gabbert would only throw 16 passes serving as Tom Brady’s backup but did walk away with a Super Bowl ring. Gabbert spent two more seasons in Tampa, throwing just 19 passes. Then he traveled to Kansas City, signing a one-year deal. He started the last game of this season, a 13-12 victory over the Chargers, throwing for 154 yards and no TDs.

If Mahomes goes down, so does all hope for Kansas City. Gabbert’s lifetime 14-35 NFL record speaks for itself. He’s only completed 40 passes since 2018. In his two appearances with the Chiefs this year, he had three interceptions and no TDs on 35 pass attempts. His QB rating is a comical 47.

Elijah Mitchell, Backup RB, 49ers — “Louisiana Lightning” played his college ball at the University of Louisiana at Lafeyette in the Sun Belt Conference. He averaged over six yards per carry, scoring 46 total TDs in a little over three years for the Ragin’ Cajuns. His collegiate effort was rewarded with the 49ers drafting him in the sixth round of the 2021 draft. Mitchell was outstanding as a rookie, breaking the 49ers single-season rookie rushing record with 963 yards.

His 2022 season was cut short with a sprained MCL in Week 1, followed by a torn MCL in Week 12. By then, the 49ers had acquired RB Christian McCaffrey.

Mitchell hasn’t played much this season, but of all the backups listed in this report, he is the best of the bunch. When featured, Mitchell had multiple games of over 100 yards. He took the 49ers deep into the playoffs in 2021, running for 149 yards and a TD over two games.

La’Mical Perine, Backup RB, Chiefs — Hot off his MVP 138-yard, three TD performance for the Florida Gators in the 2019 Orange Bowl, Perine was drafted by the Jets in the fourth round of the 2020 draft. He struggled with a high-ankle sprain and a bout with COVID-19, ending his disappointing rookie year with 232 yards and two TDs. He rarely played in 2021, appearing in only four games, and was cut at season’s end.

There were practice squad stints with the Eagles and Dolphins in 2022 before joining the Chiefs’ practice squad in January 2023. He finally made his K.C. debut against the Chargers in the meaningless season ender for the Chiefs. He played reasonably well, rushing for 76 yards and catching three balls for 33 yards.

Perine excelled on the big stage in the Orange Bowl, but he has very little professional experience. If Isiah Pacheco was injured in this game, La’Mical could possibly see a 60-40 split with Clyde Edwards-Helaire, but I’m not predicting much success against the 49ers’ stout run defense.

Charlie Woerner, Backup TE, 49ers — Probably the least known name on this list, Woerner attended the University of Georgia where he was known as one of the best blocking tight ends in the nation. That would explain his miniscule receiving statistics of 34 catches for 376 yards and a TD in four years as a Bulldog. Woerner was a 2020 sixth round pick of the 49ers.

It would be a disaster if Kittle exits the Super Bowl. Charlie has 11 receptions for 120 yards and no TDs in his three seasons with the 49ers. There’s a reason he’s known as a “blocking tight end.” The only other TE on the San Fran roster is Brayden Willis, a 2023 seventh-round pick out of Oklahoma. He caught 75 balls at OU but has not yet had a professional catch. I doubt it will come in the Super Bowl.

Noah Gray, Backup TE, Chiefs — Gray was a fifth-round selection out of Duke. The 6-3, 240 pounder had 51 receptions for 392 yards and was named second-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference and second-team All-American by the Walter Camp Foundation. Gray had two non-descript years for K.C. in 2021-22, but he upped his game in 2023. He caught 28 passes for 305 yards and two TDs playing in Kelce’s shadow.

Gray is a capable TE who’s in his third year of the system and has played well. He and Kelce both average almost 11 yards per reception, are similar in size, and sport a scruffy beard. The biggest discrepancy between the TEs is the 24-year-old Gray got married last summer and the 34-year-old Kelce is still in the dating scene with some gorgeous blonde rock star.

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