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49ers 90-in-90: WR/PR Dante Pettis

Breaking down the 90 players on the 49ers offseason roster in 90 posts (over 90 or so days). Today is WR/PR Dante Pettis.

NFL: San Franciso 49ers-OTA Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

As the first major “skill position” draftee of the Kyle Shanahan & John Lynch era, the addition of wide receiver Dante Pettis marks, what I see, as a shift in roster building philosophy. In the 2017 offseason, a majority of the 49ers skill position additions seemed to be basic team-building to field a vanilla team while the rebuild was underway. Many of us looked to the Falcons offense that Shanahan left behind as clues to our new additions. Pierre Garçon was to be a poor man’s Julio Jones. Marquise Goodwin was to fill the Taylor Gabriel “posts and fades” role, to stretch the defense vertically.

The team struck proverbial gold in the fifth round in 2017, finding a traditional slot WR and well-rounded TE in Trent Taylor and George Kittle, respectively. The team retained RB Carlos Hyde, whose fit with Shanahan’s offense was often questioned. Outside of Kyle Juszczyk (“offensive weapon”), almost everything about the collection of skill players screamed, “traditional offense.”

This offseason, however, brought some interesting wrinkles to the roster. The addition of RB Jerick McKinnon signaled a necessity for skill players to bring versatility to the table. Enter Dante Pettis, a guy who the team valued so highly, that they moved up into the second round (#44 overall) to draft him. Although listed as a (relatively capable) wide receiver, it seems to be well understood that a large portion of his value comes as a punt returner.

Outside of a 15-TD year as a receiver as a junior, Pettis never lit up the stat boxes in his four years at Washington, and that lone productive season was in a supporting role, when defenses kept themselves busy watching the 4.22 second speed of John Ross. Over 52 games in those four years, he managed 163 receptions for 2,256 yards and 24 TD’s. To put that into perspective, the much maligned Michael Crabtree had 231 receptions, 3,127 yards, and 41 touchdowns in his college career. Which spanned all of two years. Statistical cherrypicking of the highest magnitude aside, the other side of Pettis’ production tells a different story.

This man was the Michelangelo of returning punts in college. He ranks 23rd all-time in total punt return yardage (1,274 yards) and 17th all-time in yards-per-punt-return (14.2 per), and is the sole owner of the NCAA record for punt return touchdowns, with 9. That kind of production is hardly an aberration, and speaks volumes to his ability to move in a phone booth, as well as his field vision.

To close up this winding narrative, I’d like to point out that the man is clearly a magician with the ball in his hands, and that many of us had incorrectly pegged Marquise Goodwin as simply an 8- and 9-route kind of player. I’m excited to see what Shanahan will be able to mold Pettis into — it’s far too early to start thinking of him as another Ginn, Cribbs, or Patterson.

Basic Info

Age: 22 (turns 23 on October 23rd)
Experience: Rookie
Height: 6’1”
Weight: 186

Cap Status

Dante Pettis has not yet signed his rookie contract. The 2018 NFL minimum salary for players with 0 credited seasons is $480,000, which is the value of the “Futures Contract” that Pettis is currently participating under. Once he does sign, it will be a four year contract that allows him to negotiate after his third accrued season. As a second round pick, he is not eligible for Proven Performance Escalators.

What to expect in 2018

As of June’s mini-camp, Dante Pettis has been training at all three WR designations. The glass-half-empty type might look at this to say that his role on the offense has yet to be solidified - if this is the case, the likelihood of him starting the season as an offensive reserve increases. From there, it’s logical to assume if he were to come into major playing time, an injury led to such a situation. Now, when at Washington, Pettis’ only mentionable season as a WR came when he was able to take advantage of teams focusing on speedster John Ross. Pettis seems to be a player who is at his best in a supporting role - and if history repeats itself, playing Pettis as a primary target is liable to cut his production drastically.

On the glass half full side, an offseason in an NFL training room may help him build upon his rather slight build. In a relatively unusual scenario for WR/PR types, bulking up would obviously help him against the more physical corners who might be able to take advantage of his build, but wouldn’t necessarily hinder his after-the-catch abilities. Pettis’ game doesn’t seem to be built on speed - in fact, most analysts have questioned his top-end speed. However, those same analysts usually praised his soft hands, excellent route-running ability, body control, and feel for soft spots in coverage. Getting him in the kind of shape to minimize his getting manhandled could result in a more well-rounded pass catching option.

Odds of making the team

Speaking in absolutes is something I try to always avoid, especially when it comes to things like this. Assuming he intends to focus on playing football, it’s a virtual certainty that he will be on the 2018 49ers roster.