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2019 Rewind Report: Study of Dante Pettis 2018 – Is He a #1 WR for the NFL/WR1 for Fantasy?

March 16, 2019 7:43 PM
February 28, 2019 5:00 AM
— Our offseason ‘Rewind’ reports are where we look at an individual player’s previous season(s) of work–analyzing and researching it for clues on whether it was a ‘blip’ performance, or signs of future greatness…or signs of a mega-bust approaching. We try to do two per week in the offseason. —

2019 Rewind Report: Study of Dante Pettis 2018 – Is He a #1 WR for the NFL/WR1 for Fantasy?

*Our annual Rewind Reports are where I go back and watch most/all of the plays of a particular player from the prior season and look over all the other data to try to study/research and reach conclusions on the most asked about players in the offseason.

So, Dante Pettis was the top vote-getter for our 2019 ‘Rewind Report’ voting. A bit of a surprise, but it shouldn’t have been. I have been pushing the notion that Pettis might be a solid wide receiver talent for the NFL in general but also pushed a narrative that he might be showing ‘#1 wide receiver’ skills in-season once we got to see him work late 2018 season. After speaking with more subscribers this week, I realized Pettis was drafted or traded for by several you this past year based on our scouting.

There are plenty of wide receiver prospects we are pushing differently than the rest of football society in 2019, so why is Pettis drawing extra interest by the audience here? I think the events of late 2018 broke very favorably for Pettis’s ascension to a possible #1 wide receiver status for the 49ers in 2019, and the Niners dropping Pierre Garcon only added to the excitement/interest level.  

The Pettis story for 2019+ started with the 2018 NFL Draft – despite him not being able to compete at the Senior Bowl or get officially timed at the NFL Combine or his Pro Day (did do some private pre-draft workouts), due to a nagging sprained ankle late in 2017, Pettis was still drafted #44 overall in the draft…the 4th wide receiver taken in the draft. The 49ers made a pretty big bet on Pettis when most draft sites were showing him as more an early day three pick than an early day two selection.

More than a few people believed the 49ers ‘reach’ on Pettis in the NFL Draft was more because of his return skills (nine punt return TDs in his career – the most ever in NCAA history). Good/useful wide receiver but excellent return man prospect.

I was in that same ‘good wide receiver but excellent return man prospect’ camp on my first preview of Pettis’s tape pre-NFL Combine. In fact, I was nonplussed by him. He didn’t look all that fast to me, but he kept weaving his way to all these punt return TDs in college. His overall size didn’t grab me either thinking of him as a WR prospect – 6’0”/186? The initial preview scouting for me was ‘meh’, and then I could not fully run my computer scouting models on Pettis because he didn’t participate at the NFL Combine. So, I decided to wait for his Pro Day before I would research him deeper…but then he didn’t get timed at a Pro Day either.

With a lack of physical measurables to chew on, I had to shelve the analytics scouting and go all-in on pure tape scouting. I study about 100+ WR prospects per year, to varying degrees, so I feel good about trusting my eyes…but I’d rather not. I’d rather have data to help confirm or deny any biases, etc. I started watching Pettis return those punts again, and still…I didn’t see the ‘wow’ speed. I saw his ability to avoid/weave through traffic, but I didn’t see…like a Tyreek Hill or some kind of freakish agility skills. Then I started watching Pettis the wide receiver closer, doing so without a lot of belief anything big time was there -- and then I saw ‘it’.

I had missed ‘it’ the first times around watching Pettis – he has a stunning ‘A’ grade ability to get open off the snap and that’s a huge thing in the NFL. Pettis has some of the best feet off the snap in the NFL. I could show you a hundred examples of it but here’s two to start getting the vibe…

The first clip is Pettis’s first touchdown after he became a starter (due to the Goodwin/Garcon injuries) Week 12, working with Nick Mullens. Pettis is in the slot to the right. You may have to rewind to fully appreciate his movements because it’s ‘bang-bang’.

Exhibit A: https://youtu.be/fQjVPEXvW_Q?t=53

The second example is his second of two TDs he scored in a game against Seattle Week 13. His first score that day was a 75-yard TD. The next score was this footwork/ankle-breaker gem…

Exhibit B: https://youtu.be/fQjVPEXvW_Q?t=133

I saw these same moves off the snap on his college tape time and time again. Pettis just has a God-given ability that many other wide receivers do not have.

For this Rewind Report, I went back and watched all of Pettis’s targets from Week 11 on (when he became a starter) and watched a lot of non-target snaps on the ‘All-22’ camera just to see what Pettis was doing when not involved in the play. Here’s my conclusion on Pettis’s skills after re-watching his 2018…

He’s a #1 wide receiver talent. It’s there. It’s real. Four key points for the case on this:

1) The main reason – he can get open at will.

We already touched on this, but Pettis can beat most every corner off the snap with those choppy feet and quick agility/dart moves. He’s like an ankle-breaker basketball player. Many NFL wide receivers are fast/quick and most good wide receivers have an ability to make quick moves to get open, but Pettis has the ability on a higher level, in my opinion.

2) It’s not just his ‘off the snap’ moves either. It’s his overall agility.

Pettis moves quickly down the field on intermediate/deep routes and can stop on a dime or change directions and leave coverage in the dust…in the dust enough to give his quarterback a window to throw to him. His 2018 tape is filled with several intermediate passes where Pettis is just always open it seems…even when the play is not going his way.

His agility-ability matters because after the catch, he’s difficult to grab. You don’t set the NCAA record for punt return touchdowns because of good blocking. Pettis has some kind of ‘otherworldly’ ability to avoid tackles and make ‘chunk’ plays.

DeSean Jackson led qualified wide receivers in yards per catch in 2018 with 18.9 yards per grab. Josh Gordon placed second with 18.0 yards per catch. Mike Evans was third with 17.7.

Dante Pettis finished 2018 at 17.3 yards per catch.

John Brown and Tyreek Hill were next with 17.0 yards per catch.

Pettis is up there with the big playmakers in the game…most of it coming working with limited Nick Mullens.

There’s just something about Pettis and making yards/plays. He makes it look so easy you don’t want to believe any of his numbers are real.

3) Nick Mullens’ trust.

I know, you don’t care about Mullens, you want to know about the Garoppolo-Pettis trust factor. We’ll get there. I just want to note – Pettis became Mullens’s top targeted wide receiver as soon as he was injected into the starting lineup…and kept that mantle when Marquise Goodwin returned.

I mention the ‘trust’ because I believe Pettis offers something wonderful to any quarterback – he gets open. As a quarterback, you know that Pettis is likely to be open on almost every pass play. QB’s would also know that Pettis with the ball in his hands might go from ‘good play’ to ‘to the house’ in short order. Pettis earns a quarterback’s trust by getting open so quickly or on timing routes down the field AND gives them a bonus of things he can do after the catch.

In Week 16, the 49ers faced the Bears defense. Five of the first 11 passes Mullens threw were to Pettis. Against the best defense in the NFL, with Pettis known to be ‘the guy’ (had scored 4 TDs the prior 4 games) by the defense…and, yet, Pettis was getting open all over – like a true #1 wide receiver. *Pettis was hurt on that fifth target, sprained MCL and was out for the game and the following week (17).

Why wouldn’t Jimmy Garoppolo love a wide receiver constantly open and constantly making yards after the catch?

4) Flanker or Slot.

Pettis seemed pretty comfortable working in the slot or spreading out wide and taking on coverage, running precise ‘#1 wide receiver-like’ routes. He’s multidimensional, which allows him to get/stay on the field for sure in 2019. He’s a handful to deal with for smaller slot-cover corners. Pettis is going to be in the 49ers’ starting trio in 2019.

He also showed good+ hands. Sure, he gator-armed a throw into danger 1-2 times and had a bad drop or two of all the 2018 tape I watched. I’m not a hysterical ‘drop’ guy, especially for smaller, thinner-framed finesse wide receivers working in traffic like Pettis. No issues with his hands overall…and he showed smooth, NFL ‘snatch’ catches on slightly miss-targeted passes (which Mullens dealt more than a few times). Pettis catches the ball like a top NFL wide receiver.


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So, after watching all the 2018 tape and considering his college scouting -- will Pettis be the 49ers #1 wide receiver…a WR1 threat in fantasy for 2019? I can conclusively say, “Probably not.”

‘Probably not’ means ‘possibly so’, but I lean ‘probably not’. As I watched back Pettis’s 2018 and thought about his 2019, I grew more convinced of his wonderful wide receiving talent…but the study also made me a bit more skeptical of his ascension to #1 wide receiver/WR1 in fantasy in 2019.

…and you can blame Kendrick Bourne.

As I watched game after game of Pettis from 2018, I kept being re-reminded just how talented Kendrick Bourne is (they were the 1-2 punch a lot of the time late in 2018 season). Bourne is not as talented as Pettis, but he is a legit NFL starting WR…as I’ve maintained since his rookie preseason. Bourne is not the athlete Pettis is, but he has great size and excellent hands. It’s a reminder that the 49ers are just not reliant on Pettis in 2019.

And when you watch Pettis’s tape, and can’t help but notice Bourne…and then you also can’t help but notice George Kittle either. Jimmy Garoppolo has a top tight end weapon, plus solid option Kendrick Bourne, on top of #1 wide receiver threat Dante Pettis. That’s not to mention a very talented slot wide receiver in Trent Taylor…a Wes Welker+ that the 49ers haven’t fully integrated. I love Pettis, for fantasy, working the slot…but Trent Taylor may nudge him out to a flanker/outside wide receiver role and send Bourne to the bench.

Oh, and then there is Jimmy Garoppolo’s favorite target during his entire 49ers (healthy) tenure – Marquise Goodwin. Does Jimmy G. drop his preference target (Goodwin) for the emerging Pettis? Maybe…maybe as Pettis is more reliable at getting open short and medium to play pitch-and-catch with, but Goodwin has had Garoppolo’s heart before. The 49ers could come out Week 1 of 2019 season with Pettis-Goodwin as a 1-2 punch with Taylor as the slot and tight end Kittle just as important in the passing game – that’s a lot of mouths to feed…with Kendrick Bourne and Richie James rotating in and out, and Jerick McKinnon an ace in the passing game as well. The number’s game may hold Pettis back from a major fantasy breakout. He might be the most targeted 49er, but not enough for a WR1.

The upside for Pettis is: (1) Pettis starts in the slot (instead of Taylor) and Goodwin-Bourne work as the outside wide receivers, and (2) Marquise Goodwin is removed from the equation…forcing Garoppolo to go to Pettis more. Goodwin has proven that he’s very fast, capable, and made of papier Mache. The odds Goodwin goes 3-4 games in-a-row without getting hurt again are weak. Goodwin has suffered many concussions in his career…he may be one more away from having to call it a career. If I told you Goodwin was cut/retired/traded away today – you and I both would be beyond excited for Pettis’s target projections. Goodwin is the main fear we all have…justifiable or not.

There’s another trade possibility rumored that scares all Pettis holders, and it is holding down his current dynasty-fantasy valuations – what if Odell Beckham or Antonio Brown wind up on the 49ers?

I cannot dismiss these rumors out of hand, but I don’t think it’s as strong a possibility as it seems. Why? Because I think the lazy, poorly studied national football media hasn’t an original bone in their body. They look at the 49ers’ wide receiver depth chart, don’t see any recognizable names or 1st-round draft picks (because that’s been so ‘winning’), so they just assume the 49ers desperately need wide receivers…which then makes it easy to stir up clickbait rumors of big-name wide receivers going to the 49ers. Adding fuel to that fire are the equally uniformed NFL wide receivers themselves (like Antonio Brown) who echo the media sentiment and assume the 49ers need wide receivers as well and are trying to get themselves there.

The 49ers, or any team, would love to have an OBJ or AB…who wouldn’t? But they don’t need it. Dante Pettis can work like a #1 wide receiver. Marquise Goodwin is the ultimate field stretcher. Trent Taylor is possibly the closest thing to Julian Edelman/Wes Welker there is in the league until Andy Isabella is drafted. Do the 49ers want to take the heavy payroll on of a big-name wide receiver, trade away a lot of assets, and invite the circus to town?

The Shanahan’s have never been ones for ‘flashy’ or ‘diva’ wide receivers. When Kyle took over in San Francisco, and they had an empty cupboard at wide receiver…he went out and signed professional wide receiver Pierre Garcon and head-scratching (at the time) Bills underachiever Marquise Goodwin and drafted professional grinder wide receiver Trent Taylor. Kyle Shanahan has heretofore avoided the drama wide receivers. In his stint in Atlanta, Shanahan had to ‘OK’ the add of Mohammed Sanu from free agency, drafted quality prospect Justin Hardy, and brought in under-the-radar wide receivers he previously worked with – Aldrick Robinson and Taylor Gabriel. I don’t think Antonio Brown, at his age, and recent actions, is Shanahan’s cup of tea. Odell Beckham might be more worth accommodating, but that would be a massive trade and a huge payroll consideration. San Fran has the money, but they have bigger needs than ‘name’ wide receivers known more for their off the field than on of late.

I’d bet against a big-name, splash wide receiver being added to the 49ers.

To answer your question…is Dante Pettis a #1 wide receiver talent? The answer, I believe, is ‘Yes’. Will he be that for the 49ers and for fantasy 2019? Maybe.

Pettis is trading outside the top 40-50 wide receivers in early redraft and Best Ball drafts right now…a bargain. You could acquire Pettis for a mid-to-late 2nd-round rookie draft pick in Dynasty…and maybe get a 5th-7th pick back as well if you deal an early 2nd-rounder. I’ve seen a few Pettis for a junk player + a 3rd/4th-round rookie draft pick.

I think Pettis is going to pay off, eventually, for fantasy…either a WR1 or strong WR2, but that may not happen until 2020+…but there is a growing chance of it in 2019. Watch to see if you see ‘slot’ talk with him, and obviously we’ll all be watching the OBJ and AB trade rumors and activity.

Pettis might pay off big in 2019, but we have a few hurdles to leap first.

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About R.C. Fischer

R.C. Fischer is a fantasy football player analyst for Fantasy Football Metrics and College Football Metrics. 

Email rc4metrics@gmail.com

Learn more about RC and the Fantasy Football Metrics system >>