It was in seventh grade when Dante Pettis watched film of himself and noticed something unusual. The first thought that came to his mind was “why do I run so differently than everybody else?”
Aside from his ever-changing colorful hair (which happens to be blue at the moment), the 6-foot-1, 195-pound lanky receiver’s unique running style and unorthodox leg movement has served him well throughout his football career. The receiver’s route-running and savvy pass-catching abilities led the San Francisco 49ers to move up 15 spots to select him in the second round of the 2018 NFL draft.
“I think that’s one of the reasons we had him targeted very early in the draft. I think that’s why we traded up to go get him because we knew he had a skill set that fit us,” Kyle Shanahan said. “Now, it’s about showing him that he naturally can do it and get him to do it in his routes. If you can make guys miss with your feet when you have the ball in your hand, you should be able to do it in routes, too. To combine that with his speed and his hands and his intelligence, which he is very smart, you feel pretty confident that he’s going to continue to get better.”
The 49ers pass catcher has emerged as one of San Francisco’s most productive receivers through the first week of training camp. He’s won several battles at the line of scrimmage and has a knack for creating separation from defenders out of his breaks.
What’s also been impressive is Jimmy Garoppolo’s growing comfort with his rookie receiver. The two have continually impressed during 1-on-1 drills and full-team work. Their highlight of camp so far came on a go-route when the the receiver beat Ahkello Witherspoon and hauled a 40-yard touchdown.
“He moves differently than most guys,” Garoppolo said. “He has some long limbs, long arms, long legs and it helps him create space with defenders. He has a unique ability, I call it wiggle, whatever you want to call it though, of just his body moves a certain way and he explodes out of the break and separates a foot from a guy. That’s all you need. As a quarterback, you love to see that.”
Pettis has the potential to play a big role on special teams, too. He set the NCAA record with nine career punt return touchdowns during his time at Washington. His deceptive speed and unique movements translate well to his abilities at receiver as well.
“He’s almost like a basketball player. He gets his feet in the ground, he gets outside his frame, it’s like he’s crossover dribbling all of the time. He’s very dynamic in the way his body moves and the athleticism that he has,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “I’m sure Kyle and those guys will tell you that he’s still got so much to learn about receiver play, especially in our offense, but I know everybody’s excited about what he’s capable of.”
Pettis will have to work his way up a log-jammed depth chart at receiver. If he continues to show well over the course of the next few weeks of the preseason, he could carve out a prominent role in the 49ers offense sooner rather than later.