Dante Pettis and the Allure of Unknown Upside

Dave Larkin argues why 49ers second-year receiver Dante Pettis may be the best kept secret in the fantasy community.

Blink and you may have missed it. "It" being the quietly productive and mature performances by Dante Pettis as the 2018 season came to its conclusion. You could be forgiven for not paying attention as the former Washington product posted a gaudy 17.3 yards per catch – second among rookie receivers in 2018 – and averaged just over six targets, four catches, 48 yards receiving and .67 touchdowns over the final six games (Weeks 10-16; Pettis sustained an injury in Week 16 that ended his campaign).

And that all came with overachieving youngster Nick Mullens throwing Pettis the ball.

Indeed, as the 4-12 49ers team of 2018 sputtered towards the finish line, their franchise quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo sidelined to recuperate from a torn ACL, not many fantasy owners would have paid much heed as a little known and oft-dismissed rookie routinely made defensive backs look silly.

Perhaps they should have. Perhaps we all should have.

The fantasy community may, at long last, be catching on to Pettis fever. The latest ADP has the second-year pro at WR34 in PPR formats, wedged between the likes of New England’s N’Keal Harry and New York Jet favorite Robby Anderson. It is a tier in which savvy owners can unearth gems that some forget about.

Pettis is a lottery ticket more and more fantasy owners are willing to take a punt on, but will those who invest be dumping their stocks early or cashing in?

TECHNICALLY, HE’S THE TOTAL PACKAGE

Perhaps no 49ers player is in a better position to comment on Dante Pettis’ abilities in live on-field action than Nick Mullens, who was under center for the receiver’s breakout period from Week 10 to 16:

“He just feels comfortable out there,” Mullens said of his teammate. “He’s natural. He’s not thinking about it. He’s running his routes and making plays.”

TABLE - PETTIS' FINAL SIX GAMES of 2018

Week
Opponent
Snaps
Rushes
Yards
TDs
Targets
Recs
Yards
TDs
10
NY Giants
41
0
0
0
6
4
12
0
12
Tampa Bay
58
0
0
0
7
4
77
1
13
Seattle
71
1
-2
0
7
5
129
2
14
Denver
61
0
0
0
7
3
49
1
15
Seattle
57
0
0
0
5
5
83
0
16
Chicago
17
0
0
0
5
3
21
0

It is Mullens’ endorsement of Pettis as a ‘natural’ that best fits when one critically analyses the receiver’s game. A slick, smooth route runner, Pettis can tell a story to defensive backs – and often one they are reluctant to hear, based on how they are often flailing to stay in phase with the nuanced skill of Pettis.

The above example illustrates the separation Pettis can achieve at the top of his routes – especially when he is lined up in the slot with a two-way go.

PFF writer Austin Gayle described Pettis’ feet as ‘freaky’. This play against the Buccaneers is athletically marvelous in its execution, reminiscent of a Victor Cruz at the peak of his powers.

Put frankly, Pettis is a technician. He will not wow onlookers with his laudatory leaping ability or crazy contested catches, but where he excels is increasingly where the NFL is trending these days – it’s all about separation. He demonstrated in a small sample size – his season was waylaid by a knee injury – how effective he could be in that regard. Expect 2019, after a full offseason of bulking up to combat more physical play, to be a step forward.

There’s plenty of room in the league for Victor Cruz types:

Often as fantasy analysts – and lovers of the game of football – we fall into the trap of dismissing players who don’t fit a type. Nobody summarises this innate bias more succinctly than my colleague Matt Waldman who, in his ranking of Pettis, has the following comment:

“Pettis’ stock suffers from analysts’ inability to recognize a talent that doesn’t fit a specific template. Most analysts understand big, strong and fast, and small, quick and elusive. However, average-sized receivers with greater suddenness than speed fall between the cracks of their evaluations of the position.”

‘HE’S FREAKISH’ – THE KYLE SHANAHAN SEAL OF APPROVAL

49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan expects his receivers to be heady, quick and versatile to unlock the intricacies of his scheme. When asked late last season what drew him to Dante Pettis, the head coach said:

“I think he has pretty freakish body movement,” Shanahan said. “The way he glides, he almost euro steps as he runs routes – and that’s talent. He’s pretty unique in how he moves and how coordinated he can control his body in some awkward positions.”

The 49ers doubled down on the wide receiver position this offseason, drafting speed merchant Deebo Samuel and the versatile playmaker Jalen Hurd to inject some fresh blood into a unit needing a boon. Detractors of Pettis will point to Samuel and Hurd’s arrival and use it as a stick to beat the second-year pro’s prospects, but Shanahan’s words reveal how highly he values Pettis’ skill set.

Lest fantasy owners forget, Pettis is not simply a one-trick pony who will dutifully catch a pass, absorb a blow and hop back up ready for the next play, as the chain gang moves a couple of yards. With Nick Mullens at quarterback, Pettis produced plays like this in Seattle, showcasing his skill as a finisher:

The 49ers brass took notice of how Pettis rounded out his injury-interrupted rookie campaign:

“We loved the way he closed this season,” said 49ers general manager John Lynch. “There’s some maturation that I think is naturally going to come in terms of putting some girth on and some strength. I think this offseason is very important for him.”

The words of coaches and general managers can often be misconstrued or just plain twisted to fit a narrative, but both Shanahan and Lynch left no room for interpretation in their glowing remarks about the young receiver. Moreover, highly respected 49ers beat writer Matt Maiocco recently confirmed that Pettis would be a starter in 2019.

All signs, in other words, are pointing to an upswing for Pettis’ prospects.

ALLURE OF THE UNKNOWN: THE RETURN OF JIMMY G

The chemistry between quarterback and receiver is a nebulous concept, one that cannot necessarily be quantified in figures or easily digestible tidbits. Rather, it is a product of non-verbal communication, hours upon hours of practice time drilling the same routes and concepts, and, for lack of a better term, ‘feel’ between the players.

In the first two games of the 2018 season, a buoyant 49ers offense, fresh off a stunning end to 2017 during which Jimmy Garoppolo looked like an All-Pro, bore high expectations. They proved to be the only full games the franchise savior Garoppolo would take part in, cutting short a potentially beautiful relationship with one Dante Pettis.

Pettis announced himself to the league at large in Week 1 in Minnesota, hauling in two catches on five targets, one of those for a touchdown. It wasn’t eye-popping, but it was a tantalizing sign of things to come.

Week 2 would see the Detroit Lions deploy a highly effective game plan centered around press man coverage that stifled Pettis, exacerbated by the fact that the rookie, in only his second professional game, simply lacked the skill and chemistry with his quarterback to defeat the scheme dilemma.

The following video breakdown (from 15:00 onwards) goes into detail on Pettis’ struggles in that game:

The appeal here lies in the allure of the unknown.

Had Garoppolo been at quarterback for Pettis’ six-game breakout at the end of the season, how much more of his value would the quarterback have unlocked? There were many occasions on tape that show a wide-open Pettis, having bamboozled a defender, looking back for the football only to see Nick Mullens caving in under immense pressure on the pocket.

Pettis has the leg-up on rookie tandem Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd in terms of experience. His ability to play all three receiver positions is an additional check mark in his favor. In other words, the pathway is clear for Pettis, who finished second in the NFC West in yards per route run last season, to be the second read for Garoppolo (George Kittle will remain the primary target). In an offense that has only scratched the surface of its potential, that is an appealing prospect.

PROJECTIONS

Projector
Games
Rushes
Yards
TDs
Recs
Yards
TDs
FumLost
David Dodds
15.9
1
5
0
54.0
837
5.4
0.4
Bob Henry
15.0
2
15
0
53.0
850
6.0
0.0
Jason Wood
16.0
0
0
0
63.0
900
7.0
0.0
Maurile Tremblay
16.0
1
8
0
47.5
698
5.2
0.5

FINAL THOUGHTS

Dante Pettis is an ascending stock in the fantasy market – and it is easy to see why. While he may not adhere to the classical definition of a productive WR2, he has the skill, nuance and offensive system to reach that plateau. With Nick Mullens at quarterback, Pettis quietly came into his own down the stretch of 2018, showcasing the type of talent that needed only time to adjust to the professional game to shine through. The passing pie with the return of Jimmy Garoppolo is large enough for Pettis to thrive as the de-facto number two target behind George Kittle. Blink and you may have missed Pettis’ sign off in 2018; you’re unlikely to miss his encore in 2019 if all goes to plan.

OTHER PERSPECTIVES

Richard King at RotoBaller believes Pettis’ touchdown upside is limited:

“Last season Pettis attracted 16% of the targets in the games that he played in, and given his importance to the team, he should be able to attract a similar level of opportunity, if not slightly more than that this season. However, one thing that has plagued the 49ers offense since Garoppolo came into town is the team's inability to score touchdowns, especially through the air. That could be due in part to Garoppolo not knowing the full playbook when he first arrived, and last season the team had to patch together quarterback performances from their second and third string options, which could limit the upside of Pettis this fantasy season.”

Grant Cohn, a writer and film analyst at 49ers.com, expounded on the upside and downside of Pettis on a comprehensive video breakdown of his rookie season. At his best, Cohn argues, Pettis has the route-running skill of a Victor Cruz to bamboozle defensive backs; at his worst, Pettis can be routinely erased from plays by sound technique and physicality.

THOUGHTS FROM THE SHARK POOL (FOOTBALLGUYS MESSAGE BOARD)

Fruity pebbles calls Pettis a "finesse guy" but has high hopes for the second-year pro:

“Was generally impressed. Outside D.J. Moore I thought he was the best looking rookie receiver. Gets separation at will and a lot of it. Runs good routes. More quick than fast. Can be manhandled. Very much a finesse guy. The skill set is there to be a very good wide receiver if he can remain healthy.”

King Of The Jungle believes Pettis is an undervalued asset due to the plethora of wide receivers on the 49ers depth chart:

“I agree with those that find Pettis well worth a 2nd and will be trying to take advantage of those owners that are nervous because of the investments San Francisco made in the draft at that position. In my opinion, he is still the top talent on their depth chart and has a year under his belt which gives him further advantage. Buy low.”

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