San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Dante Pettis has been almost entirely absent early in 2019 despite a strong finish to his rookie year. There are a few reasons why, including the numbers game.
Pettis managed four touchdowns during that span, and had an impressive 121-yard performance on the road in Week 13 against the Seattle Seahawks.
Looking at the splits, it seemed clear the Niners had found a bona fide weapon in the 2018 NFL Draft:
Early in 2019, nearly everything seems different.
Pettis, who was subject to some offseason scrutiny, has been largely absent from San Francisco’s offense over the first two games of the season. He appeared for just two snaps in the 49ers’ Week 1 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, then saw just 12 snaps when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo dropped back to throw (h/t Kyle Posey of Niners Nation) in the team’s 41-17 dominant win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
Zero targets for Pettis in Week 2, although he did manage a completed pass on a trick play.
Pettis being in head coach Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse was a theme for Fox Sports’ broadasters, Thom Brennaman and Chris Spielman, during the game. And it appears as if questions about Pettis’ future weren’t answered in Week 2.
And it might be due solely to a numbers game.
Shanahan is going to feed his rookie, Deebo Samuel, this season. Samuel managed five receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown, and Posey pointed out how Shanahan uses Samuel and Pettis in similar roles, writing:
"Shanahan said that Pettis and Samuel are co-starters. Both play the Z-receiver position, but they both also line up in the slot as well. Pettis lined up in the slot eight times against Cincinnati, while the Samuel lined up in the slot seven times. In Shanahan’s offense, it’s evident that he wants to use the X-receiver, where Marquise Goodwin lines up, as the receiver the team takes their deep shots to. With Goodwin’s speed, that makes sense. He also gets open on comeback routes because of that speed."
Pettis is already looking like he’s lower on the depth chart, thanks to Samuel’s quick emergence and the notable play from second-year wideout Richie James.
And as Posey also mentioned, what happens with slot receiver Trent Taylor returns from his foot injury, which could be as soon as after the 49ers bye in Week 4?
Taylor already has a rapport with Garoppolo, stemming largely from his use as a third-down weapon late in 2017. One should expect that continues once Taylor returns, pushing Samuel to more of a boundary-receiver role and keeping Goodwin as solely a deep-threat option, which was Shanahan’s plan for him all along.
What this means for Pettis in the near and long-term future is cloudy, at best. There’s a chance Pettis is just a slow starter at this point is career, which would replicate what he went through in 2018.
Or, perhaps, Pettis is merely a victim of the numbers game — a deep-if-not-spectacular-yet wide receiver corps still sifting through would-be roles.
If there is good news, however, Pettis will have plenty of motivation to work himself back into the game plan and assert himself as a regular part of the rotation. It’s far too soon to give up on him.