In a season void of playoff hopes, fans immediately look towards the progression of a team's young players.
"If we aren't going to the playoffs, do we at least have guys we can get excited about for the future?" is essentially the sentiment from most fans.
The San Francisco 49ers have had several first- and second-year players step up of late. Marcell Harris, D.J. Reed Jr., Mike McGlinchey, Fred Warner, Tarvarius Moore, Solomon Thomas, George Kittle, Matt Breida and D.J. Jones are a few of the names who have played an integral role in the team's back-to-back wins against the Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks.
But the emergence of Dante Pettis may be the storyline that has stirred 49ers fans the most. Over his past four contests, the rookie wideout has accumulated 17 receptions for 338 yards and four touchdowns. That paces out to 68 catches for 1,352 yards and 16 touchdowns over a full 16-game season.
"He just feels comfortable out there," said current 49ers starting quarterback Nick Mullens, whose emergence has coincided with Pettis'. "He's natural. He's not thinking about it. He's running his routes and making plays – doing what we love to see him do. We knew since he got here that he has a lot of talent. He does a great job of separating and getting open for us.
"We're pumped up for him. It's awesome."
Fans pounded the social media drum relentlessly this past offseason, voicing their desires of acquiring a top-flight wide receiver. Allen Robinson's name was at the top of most free agent wish lists. Instead San Francisco stood on the sidelines while other team's bid for Robinson's services. The Chicago Bears ultimately landed the former Jacksonville Jaguar. The Cleveland Browns trading for Jarvis Landry did nothing but stoke the fire that raged in the @49ers mentions on Twitter.
Free agency came and went without addressing the wide receiver position. The 49ers sat idly by until Day 2 of the 2018 NFL Draft when they traded up 15 spots to take Pettis with the 44th-overall pick.
"I think he has pretty freakish body movement," Shanahan described why the 49ers were drawn to Pettis. "The way he glides, he almost euro steps as he runs routes and stuff and that's talent. Pettis is pretty unique in how he moves and how coordinated he can control his body in some awkward positions."
The Washington product immediately became a person of interest in the Bay Area. The 49ers haven't had a 1,000-yard receiver since Anquan Boldin reached the milestone twice in 2013 and '14. Before that it was Michael Crabtree in 2012, and before that it was Terrell Owens in 2003. Suffice to say that San Francisco hasn't been a hotbed for prolific pass catchers over the course of the past 15 years.
The scrutiny and, at times, impatience surrounding Pettis is due in large part to that fact. Fans were eager to see the 49ers handpicked weapon justify his second-round selection. There are still scars from former first-rounder A.J. Jenkins and, to a lesser degree, fourth-rounders Quinton Patton, Bruce Ellington and DeAndre Smelter – all of whom were unable to make a sustained impact in San Francisco.
Fans were tantalized by daily reports out of training camp that detailed big play after big play from Pettis. And remember his full-extension touchdown grab in Week 1 against the Minnesota Vikings? My goodness what a play. But the excitement quickly devolved into frustration for many fans. Pettis caught just one pass for 35 yards in Weeks 2 and 3 combined before suffering a knee sprain in Week 4. The injury kept him out for three games, but Pettis wasn't truly right until Week 10. The groans grew louder yet when Pettis' four catches against the New York Giants netted a mere 12 yards in what was another disappointing loss for San Francisco.
The pendulum began to shift back in Pettis' favor following a Week 12 road matchup with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Pettis caught another four passes, this time for 77 yards and a touchdown. His encore came in the form of a 129-yard, two-touchdown outburst against the Seahawks the following Sunday. Then Pettis posted another 49 yards and a touchdown against the Broncos before finally catching all five of his targets for 83 yards this past weekend in San Francisco's win against Seattle.
That's a month's worth of production where Pettis has showcased his natural ability to create separation as well as his lethal make-you-miss skills after the catch.
"It's very encouraging," Shanahan said of Pettis. "I'll definitely make a point that he hasn't found his way fully yet. He's still got to keep going. But Pettis, he's had the ability to do it since he got here, and that's why we were excited to get him. It always takes time for rookies, and in my history it's been huge with receivers.
"He's shown he has all of the tools to be a very good receiver. We'll see how high that ceiling goes to."
And that right there is the task at hand, not just for Pettis, but for all of the young talent on the 49ers roster. What kind of jump can you make from Year 1 to Year 2? George Kittle's Pro Bowl sophomore campaign serves as Exhibit A for the best-case scenario.
None of this means that the 49ers should be puffing their chests or counting their chips. There's obviously a long way to go for Pettis, and a few standout performances in an otherwise lost season are hardly a guarantee of what's to come. But there is reason for optimism. Pettis is penciled into the 49ers plans at wide receiver for 2019 and beyond. Now we wait and see what he does with the opportunity.
"He's shown some real signs of improvement these last few weeks, and he's got two more games to finish strong," Shanahan said. "He's going to come back next year better or worse, and it better be better."