SANTA CLARA — When the 49ers traded up to the 44th pick in the NFL draft last Saturday and took Dante Pettis, many people wondered what his role would be next season.
Slot receiver? Punt returner? Both?
The answer might be, ‘neither.’
“Rookie year, obviously I want to play as much as I can,” Pettis said Thursday in the 49ers media room. “But I’ve been around sports enough to know that it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes, there’s a learning curve. Sometimes, there’s just someone ahead of you that is better.”
The 49ers have at least three established wide receivers who may be better than Pettis next season: Starters Pierre Garcon and Marquise Goodwin, who are both signed through 2021; and slot receiver Trent Taylor, who is signed through 2020.
Garcon caught 40 passes for 500 yards in eight games last season before fracturing a vertebrae in his neck — he was on pace to have 1,000 yards. Goodwin was on pace to have 1,000 yards, too, until he left the final game of the season with a concussion. He finished 2017 with 962 receiving yards on 56 catches. And Taylor, a rookie, had 430 receiving yards on 43 catches.
All three produced. Given their abilities on offense and their familiarity with 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan’s offensive scheme, Pettis may not see the field next season.
Unless he returns punts.
Returning punts is Pettis’s specialty. He is the NCAA’s all-time leader in punt return touchdowns — he had nine in four seasons. And last season, he led college football with four punt return touchdowns and 20.4 yards per punt return.
“My best attribute (as a punt returner) is my decision-making,” Pettis said. “I’m pretty aggressive in the return game. I try not to let too many balls hit the ground. Try to catch everything.
“I think it’s going to be a little bit of a transition, just because (there are) better players (in the NFL). You can’t just be more athletic than someone or run around somebody. You have to really trust the blocking even more and figure out different ways to get past people.”
Pettis didn’t sound confident he’ll be ready to return punts in the NFL as a rookie. And he may not even want to return them.
“I view myself as a receiver, not really a punt returner,” Pettis said. “Everything I aim for is receiver-wise, not punt-returner-(wise).”
In college, people saw him punt-returner-wise. He established himself his freshman season as a return threat by returning 28 punts for 288 yards and a touchdown.
Pettis didn’t emerge as a receiving threat until his junior season in 2016, when he caught 53 passes for 822 yards, and had 15 touchdown catches. He was Washington’s No. 2 receiver behind John Ross, who later became a first-round draft pick in 2017.
After Ross left for the NFL, Pettis became Washington’s No. 1 receiver. That’s when opposing defenses began to focus on shutting him down. And that’s when his production dropped. He finished 2017 with 761 receiving yards and seven touchdown catches. Despite the down the season, Pettis impressed Shanahan with versatility.