Photo credit: 49ers
It was so popular to dunk on Dante Pettis last season that it became unpopular. Following a rookie year that featured both flashes (27 receptions, 467 yards, 5 TDs) of why the 49ers spent a second-round pick on him and inconsistencies and a tentativeness which provided cause for concern, Pettis’ sophomore season was just shy of a disaster.
He had a pair of touchdowns, including a key one against the Arizona Cardinals on Halloween, but he proved time and time again that he was averse to contact; likely heightened, in part, by the fact that he was dealing with an upper body injury from the outset of training camp, and subsequently picked up a nagging calf injury.
The most prolific college returner in NCAA history (9 total return touchdowns) was never given a shot at returning punts or kickoffs in large part due to that aversion. Head coach Kyle Shanahan never admitted that, but when he has talked about what he looks for in a returner, he talks about toughness and dealing with contact as some of the most important traits.
Through this opening block of four practices, though, Pettis looks far more like the man the 49ers saw coming out of the University of Washington. His routes are crisper, he’s fighting more off the line of scrimmage and in the first five yards, and crucially, he’s getting open and making catches.
He led all 49ers receivers on Tuesday, the first day of padded practice which reporters could view clearly, with five receptions on five targets. He’s been finding areas in the defense’s zone to sit down in and attackED the ball at the catch point with aggressive hands, perhaps the greatest flaw he displayed last season.
With Deebo Samuel out and injuries to Richie James Jr. (which could see him cut) and Jalen Hurd (a likely season-ending ACL tear), Pettis is now one of the more experienced wide receivers in Shanahan’s system.
Pettis impressing early in a short camp is monumental and at this point makes him a frontrunner to start at the Z (flanker, playing behind the line off scrimmage) position, with Brandon Aiyuk the likely X starter (split end, outside receiver) and Trent Taylor to start at F (it’s the slot, more commonly called Y). Kendrick Bourne is more of a tall slot option, but who will play all around the formation and on every third down.
It’s never been a question of his talent or (at least for this reporter) even his work ethic, but his ability to be physical, competitive and attack the football with his hands. So far, he’s displayed that, as Jimmy Garoppolo has witnessed.
“Yeah, he’s been coming along. It’s very encouraging, just the physicality that he’s playing with, the competitiveness that he’s bringing,” Garoppolo said. “You love to see that, and it’s just one of those things that you have to keep him rolling.”
This is coming from a quarterback who became visibly frustrated with Pettis at times last season, when he targeted Pettis 24 times for just 11 receptions. That second part of his answer belies the challenge that faces Pettis: keep going.
If he retains his momentum, he’ll have gone from potentially on the bubble to regaining, at least temporarily, his starting spot. Even for an injury-riddled position group, that’s no small feat on a team looking to return to the Super Bowl.