As the San Francisco 49ers have dealt with a rash of injuries at wide receiver, a player many expected to struggle to stay on the roster has flashed signs of a return to his best that could help them overcome prospective absences at the position.
The 2020 season is widely regarded as a make-or-break year for 2018 second-round pick Dante Pettis, who excelled down the stretch in his rookie year only to fade from prominence as the 49ers surged to the Super Bowl in 2019.
Indeed, despite some highlights, Pettis spent last season firmly in the doghouse of head coach Kyle Shanahan. However, after being inactive for the Super Bowl LIV loss to the Kansas City Chiefs, Pettis – who conceded to taking some of Shanahan's coaching personally – adopted a change in approach that appears to have paid dividends.
Pettis has flashed the talent that convinced the 49ers to select him 44th overall in 2018, with Shanahan excited by what he has seen from the former Washington Husky since the Niners convened for training camp.
Without the benefit of preseason, it is tough to gauge whether Pettis is experiencing a renaissance and is again the player who showed significant potential in the second half of 2018.
But, with Deebo Samuel recovering from a Jones fracture and rookie Brandon Aiyuk nursing a hamstring injury, the Niners could undoubtedly benefit from having a receiver who excels at creating separation with his route-running back to the form of two years ago as they bid to hit the ground running in their latest Super Bowl push.
Winning early and often
That route-running craft has long since been the calling card for Pettis, whose foot quickness and change-of-direction ability has allowed him to consistently win with his stem.
His success in beating defenders early in the route was a key feature of Pettis' rookie season. Talented corners such as Mike Hughes and Shaquill Griffin were undone by Pettis' intelligent use of his agility.
Griffin struggled mightily against him in the 49ers' Week 15 overtime win over the Seattle Seahawks in 2018, with Pettis drawing a crucial pass interference penalty on San Francisco's game-winning drive.
Though Pettis' impact was limited last season, there were some examples of Pettis' proficiency in defeating the coverage of top-tier cornerbacks, most notably against Marcus Peters in the Week 6 victory over the Los Angeles Rams.
Those flashes were not enough for Pettis to carve out a clear role for himself in 2019 but there is an obvious area of the field where his capacity for winning soon after the snap could be a significant advantage for the Niners in 2020.
The 49ers are not lacking for red-zone threats to the extent they once were.
Kendrick Bourne has established himself as a go-to option within the opposing 20 while Jordan Reed will give them another tight end they can rely on in the congested area to go with George Kittle.
But Pettis has already demonstrated he can add to their red-zone arsenal, his route-running skills key to two of his touchdowns from inside the 20 in 2018.
Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pettis engineered significant separation from Carlton Davis with a jab step, allowing him to cruise into the endzone for the score.
In the Niners' Week 14 win versus the Denver Broncos, Pettis got wide open on a fade route in markedly similar fashion, giving Nick Mullens an easy touchdown by faking an inside move on which Isaac Yiadom bit heavily.
With the abundance of passing-game threats the 49ers have across different positions, engineering single-coverage looks for Pettis in the red zone should not be a difficult task for Shanahan. Recent history says that, if Pettis does rediscover his play of 2018, he will emphatically capitalize on such opportunities.
Aside from the running game, the success of the 49ers' offense has been predicated on the ability of their pass-catchers to pick up yardage after the catch. Both Samuel and Kittle ranked in the top five in the NFL in yards after catch per reception in 2019, per NextGen Stats, while the Niners will look for Aiyuk to have a similar impact with the ball in his hands after he averaged 18.3 yards per reception in his final season for Arizona State.
Pettis may not possess the same upside as Samuel and Kittle when it comes to yardage after the catch, however, he did display promise in that area in 2018 in a two-touchdown showing in the Niners' road loss to Seattle.
On his first touchdown, Pettis used his change-of-direction skills and a stiff arm to evade a tackle attempt by Griffin and take a short completion from Mullens to the endzone.
He then showed the speed to take intermediate receptions the distance on his second score as he outran the Seahawks secondary.
Pettis is far from the first name on anyone's lips in relation to the 49ers and their status as the YAC kings of the NFL, yet the tape indicates he has the talent to provide San Francisco with an embarrassment of riches in that regard. But succeeding in doing so is contingent on Pettis fixing what is seen as his most significant issue.
The most pointed criticism of Pettis from most observers has concerned his ability to catch the ball when working on routes over the middle. And there were high-profile instances last season when that critique was justified.
Pettis was unable to haul in pass when working against Joe Haden while crossing the field in the 49ers' Week 3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, the tipped ball snared by Minkah Fitzpatrick for an interception.
A similar failure came in the Week 10 overtime loss to the Seahawks. Pettis created separation from Griffin as he worked across the middle but did not stretch out for Jimmy Garoppolo's pass, allowing the ball to fall incomplete when he seemingly had room to run ahead of him had he reeled in the throw.
The drive ended with the 49ers punting the ball back to Seattle for the game-winning possession and his apparent lack of commitment to put his body on the line in that situation effectively led to Shanahan benching Pettis, who played just nine more snaps in 2019.
In 2020, with his relationship with Shanahan seemingly repaired, Pettis has the chance to alleviate concerns over his effectiveness on routes over the middle, and the most critical play from the defeat of the Steelers suggests it should not be that difficult of an issue to fix.
Reason for hope
Pettis went from villain to hero versus Pittsburgh as he atoned for his earlier error with the game-winning touchdown.
It was not a reception on which Pettis was forced to go over the middle. However, it was a touchdown that saw Pettis prove he can make plays on catches where there is a strong chance of him having to absorb heavy contact.
Garoppolo connected on a timing throw to the endzone to Pettis, who left his feet to bring in the pass despite the distinct possibility of him being hit hard by Steven Nelson in the process.
Though it was a false dawn for Pettis' 2019 campaign, the determination he illustrated on that decisive score indicates he can be a player on whom the Niners can rely on throws to congested areas of the field, providing he retains the mindset with which he has approached his preparations for 2020.
Progression as a wide receiver in the NFL is not always linear and Pettis found that out the hard way last season. Going into his third year, though, Pettis seems prepared to meet the demands of one of the NFL's most meticulous coaches.
What Pettis produced down the stretch in 2018 and in spurts in 2019 offers hope he can revitalize his career with San Francisco. If his training camp resurgence carries into the regular season and he lives up to Shanahan's lofty expectations, Pettis can provide a banged-up wide receiver corps with much-needed strength in depth.