San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch traded up in the second round to select wide receiver Dante Pettis in the 2018 NFL Draft with a specific vision in mind. Pettis was an electrifying talent at Washington, showing vertical ability and adding a dynamic aspect as a ball carrier.
Pettis was a refined and unique route runner, which resulted in constant separation from defensive backs. Head coach Kyle Shanahan has shown an affinity for those type of wide receivers, and thought that Pettis would be a natural fit in his west coast offense.
Shanahan asks his receivers to be instant separators to create an efficient, well-executed short passing game. Additionally, when his offense is at it's best is when the play-action pass is clicking. This means the receivers need to be adept on vertical routes, double moves or using the extra time to find soft spots in zone coverage. This was an ideal fit for a player of Pettis' ability.
Upon entering the league, Pettis had a nice showing in Week 1 that I charted. You can see those findings here. He had a touchdown when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo extended the play, and another long reception.
While Pettis added another deep reception the following week, he would suffer an injury that would sideline him for multiple weeks. Upon re-entering the lineup for good four weeks ago against the New York Giants, a lot had changed in the 49ers offense.
Jimmy Garoppolo had been injured for the season, and second-year quarterback Nick Mullens would be making his second career start. Most importantly, Pierre Garcon had been sidelined with an injury and fellow top wide receiver Marquise Goodwin would get hurt that night against the Giants, missing the next two games.
These scenarios had opened the door for Pettis to thrive over the last 3 games. With the 49ers out of playoff contention, it's motivating for the coaching staff to give the younger players on the roster more game reps. Additionally, Pettis was atop of the wide receiver depth chart with the injuries to the veterans.
Over the last three games, Pettis has made the most of this ideal situation for his development. After Sunday's upset win over the Denver Broncos, he now has 12 receptions, 255 yards and 4 touchdowns on 20 targets through those 3 games.
Against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Pettis shook fellow rookie cornerback Carlton Davis at the line of scrimmage and found a crease for a touchdown:
Later, despite not being targeted he showed the route running nuance that he had previously put on film in college:
Pettis showed flashes of some of the exact traits that got him drafted so high; immediately separating at the line of scrimmage and the craftiness to leave defensive backs crossed up at the top of the route. He would just be getting started with these flashes, as the game against Seattle last week would be when he really went nuts.
Being the all-time NCAA leader in punt return touchdowns, Pettis had obvious elusiveness in space. Against Seattle, he would find an opening in zone coverage and eventually bust it open for a touchdown:
He would break open for another long touchdown, knifing through two defensive backs and showing the long speed to finish the play. Here are all of his targets against the Seahawks from the All-22 angle:
The tear that Pettis has found himself on continued Sunday, as he once again beat press coverage in the redzone for an easy touchdown. His quick feet and nuance to threaten inside was a weapon in this area in college, and has easily translated to the next level:
Through all of the big plays, the most encouraging part of the game came in crunch time.
Pettis had a 3rd down drop with just over 7:00 minutes remaining that allowed Denver to get back in the game. Despite that drop, Mullens would target Pettis on a massive third down play on the following possession. Pettis responded with the reception, and picked up a big gain after the catch to help ice the game for the 49ers:
Pettis had a very low drop rate throughout college, with only 4 drops over his final two collegiate seasons. The drop he had in the fourth quarter was an unforced, rookie mistake where his focus was on picking up yards post-catch. However, seeing his response on a similar play in an even bigger pressure situation is promising.
Even with Marquise Goodwin back on the field against Denver, Pettis led the 49ers wide receivers in targets once again with 7.
Looking forward, the traits that suggested a natural fit into Kyle Shanahan's system should continue to be prevalent. As Pettis progresses, he will likely be looked at to take over atop or near the top of the 49ers wide receiver depth chart, regardless of who is healthy.
This is a valuable time for Pettis' development as a rookie, and he is taking full advantage of these reps with electrifying, consistent wide receiver play.