With the 12th pick in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft, the San Francisco 49ers selected wide receiver Dante Pettis out of the University of Washington.
To many, the Pettis selection was a bit of a head scratcher. Mike Mayock of NFL Network labeled him a slot receiver. Many 49ers fans felt that was too high for someone who’s “just a punt returner” – the all-time touchdown leading punt returner in college football to be exact.
But there is much more to Pettis’ game than just being a terrific return man.
Wide receivers coach and writer for The Draft Network, Brad Kelly, had Pettis as his WR1 in the 2018 draft, and for good reason. Pettis so far has displayed an unorthodox way of running routes that allows him to get separation from NFL defensive backs on a consistent basis. Understanding leverage and the nuances of route running seems to be a strength of his. Throughout camp, preseason and one game against the Minnesota Vikings—a team that just last season was 60 minutes away from a Super Bowl appearance—Pettis has flashed big-play ability, including a 22-yard back-of-the-endzone toe-tapping touchdown catch.
And the route running ability that had naysayers singing a different tune when it came to the second round draft pick.
Hold on, though, there is a “but.”
Pettis still has room to improve. He has the skill set to be a big part of the 49ers offense, but his lack of play strength is somewhat of an issue. Pettis has a slight frame, which is okay if you play strong. But to this point he hasn’t. Take New York Jets receiver Robby Anderson for example. At 6-foot-3 190 pounds, Anderson is built like a twig, but when that ball is in the air, he does everything in his power to come down with it. And in Week 1 on Monday night against the Detroit Lions, that was on full display as he ripped the ball out of Lions safety Tavon Wilson’s hands.
Attacking the ball while in the air is a mindset. A lot of people think Pettis needs to add weight. I don’t think that’s the case. He needs to add some aggressiveness to his game and the attitude that every time that ball is in the air, he’s coming down with it no matter who’s contesting it.
Granted, it is still extremely early in Pettis’ career and he hasn’t had a ton of contested catch opportunities with the 49ers. However, he has had a few opportunities where I felt he could have come down with the ball if he were a bit more aggressive.
Sunday against the Vikings, 49ers head coach and play-caller Kyle Shanahan lined Pettis up in a tight split. Pettis did a good job of getting an inside release not allowing the defensive back to get hands on, and then he immediately stacked cornerback Trae Waynes and runs his post route. The setup by Pettis was perfect. The ball was slightly under thrown by Jimmy Garoppolo – but more often than not deep balls are contested and receivers have to make some sort of adjustment.
Trae Waynes is one of the longer, speedier cornerbacks in the league, so once Pettis committed to the post, Waynes was able to put his head down and get in position to make a play on the ball. Waynes did a great job of getting his forearm in between Pettis and the ball as Pettis was reeling in the pass. This I where I’d like to see Pettis take that next step and be more aggressive by attacking the ball more and ripping it out of his hands. This was definitely good defense by Waynes, but if Pettis is going to be the receiver we think he can become, these are the plays he needs to make.
In the dress rehearsal preseason game against the Indianapolis Colts, backup quarterback C.J. Beathard gave Pettis an opportunity to show off his jump ball catching ability, but unfortunately this too fell incomplete.
Between the 20’s Pettis is an outstanding option for Jimmy Garoppolo, but how aggressive he can be is still in question. With regular starting receiver Marquise Goodwin questionable for the Week 2 home opener against the Lions, look for Pettis to play a more significant role in the game plan.
Media courtesy Brad Rempel/USA Today Sports Images, NFL