Kyle Shanahan’s body language said it all.
The San Francisco 49ers had just traded up to the 44th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and used it to select Dante Pettis, the wide receiver from Washington, and Shanahan could barely look more excited.
A steely expression of satisfaction on his face, Shanahan emphatically slapped hands with general manager John Lynch and then pumped his first, indicating the Niners had landed a player long since at the top of their head coach’s wish list.
Fast forward to the opening days of training camp and Pettis is already beginning to justify Shanahan’s reaction to taking him in the second round.
Pettis has been one of the early stars of 49ers training camp, getting repetitions with all of the quarterbacks, per Matt Barrows of The Athletic, and has proven an extremely tough cover. Pettis has been able to create separation deep with his speed and on shorter routes with his craft and smoothness as a route runner, a combination of traits that were consistently on display during his collegiate career with the Huskies.
However, they are just two parts of a superb overall skill set that gives Pettis, who some pegged as simply a slot receiver, the opportunity to be the best player the 49ers have had at the position since Terrell Owens.
Pettis proved an excellent downfield threat at Washington as he regularly displayed fantastic initial burst off the line but also an extra gear to help him get over the top of defenses, as he did on this play against Rutgers.
Yet it isn’t just his speed that has enabled Pettis to excel as a deep threat, with his skills as a ball tracker also crucial to his success in that area of the game.
Pettis can track the ball excellently over his shoulder, as he did on the first of the two plays below against Oregon, but also boasts the ability to adjust to inaccurate passes, doing so on the second play versus Washington State, which sees him slow down to find the underthrown ball and then attack it with his long arms to make a contested catch.
Contested catches have been a strong point for Pettis in every area of the field, including in the red zone, where his aptitude as a route runner also paid dividends and should continue to do so inside the 20 in the NFL.
Pettis used his route-running ability to his advantage in the red zone on this play, taking a series of jab steps before selling the cornerback inside with a hard plant with his right foot and instantly breaking outside to make an easy touchdown catch.
A similar move is used by Pettis on this zone-beating route against Oregon. He fakes the defender with a more subtle plant to the inside and fluidly breaks to the outside, finding the soft spot in the zone for a routine completion.
In addition to being skilled at creating separation with his feet, Pettis has also displayed proficiency using his hands to gain a step on opposing defenders. Here against Utah Pettis contorts his body backward and slaps away the hand of the corner to avoid the jam and separate on the slant over the middle.
Yet it is not just the moves he has in his arsenal that make Pettis such an impressive route-runner. He also demonstrates intelligence and field awareness in how he manipulates his routes based on what he sees from the defense.
An example of this came on this play versus Rutgers. Pettis uses a dip move to gain inside leverage and then breaks his route outside, flattening it off as he does so to ensure the single-high safety has a longer path to the football, thus giving himself the opportunity to adjust to a bad throw and survive two hits.
The body control Pettis demonstrated on that play is a consistent feature of his game, and it is evident again on the completion below from the meeting with Utah.
After gearing down Pettis sinks his shoulders and gives the impression he is going to break to the outside, instead he turns back upfield and, though the play is well covered, is able to find the football, adjust to it in mid-air and get a foot in bounds despite the defender’s attempt to force him out of bounds.
Boasting speed, body control, an intelligent and varied plan as a route runner and an ability to make contested catches, Pettis comes into the NFL with an exceptionally well-rounded skill set.
However, he also has another dimension to his game on special teams, having scored touchdowns on nine punt returns, including this one, on which he displayed magnificent elusiveness to evade several defenders.
In college Pettis consistently proved to be an impact player in every area of the field and on special teams, and in camp he has already shown signs he is ready to do the same right off the bat in the pros.
He has all the tools to succeed in the NFL and has landed in the ideal offense to make best use of his skills. Pre-draft talk of Pettis being solely a slot receiver was misguided, and it would be no surprise to see him blossom into one of the better wideouts in both the league and the history of the 49ers.
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