SANTA CLARA — Dante Pettis compares himself to his favorite animal: The cat.
Not because of their agility or quick reflexes but rather their disregard for outside perception and external validation.
“People are always going to have criticism. I know that,” Pettis told the Examiner. “I constantly work at tuning people out and knowing that my worth doesn’t come from what people think of me as a receiver.”
After a disappointing rookie year and a slow start to the 2019 season, the former second-round pick has recently shown signs that he can, indeed, be a top-tier receiver for the 5-0 49ers. San Francisco need his help in the passing game to stay undefeated, as they travel to face the Redskins on Sunday.
“You start to learn through failing a couple times, and I think he has gotten better each week,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “We definitely can see it, but the key is I know he can feel it and his urgency has picked up and so has every aspect of his game.”
As an unorthodox, shifty runner, Pettis thrived as a punt returner and receiver at Washington. With nine punt return touchdowns, Pettis took unique angles to slip through blocks, keeping defenders off balance. It was that skill set that prompted San Francisco to pick him 44th in the 2018 NFL Draft.
During his rookie season, Pettis showed flashes, catching 27 passes for 467 yards — the second most of any 49ers wide receiver in 2018 — but it was the lack of consistency that drove his coaches mad. That lack of consistency carried over into OTAs and training camp.
“[It was] some of the adversity he faced in training camp and stuff and kind of hearing a little bit from me and hearing it from the other coaches, then going out and not being as good as he believes he should be,” Shanahan said. “I think he did realize this isn’t just talk and [he does] need a little bit more urgency.”
Particularly, it was Pettis’ unwillingness to catch passes over the middle of the field that frustrated those around him. This issue bled over to the first few games of the regular season and was on full display when quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo tried to complete a pass to Pettis on third down late in the fourth quarter against the Cleveland Browns.
“Every f***ing time!” Garoppolo shouted when Pettis dropped what should have been a catch for a first down.
Despite the flood of tweets and articles that criticized his play, Pettis remained unfazed. Those tweeting at him aren’t calling the plays, he said. They’re not the ones deciding whether he plays or not.
“I grew up around professional athletes and so I see how that stuff happens and I’ve always been aware of it,” said Pettis, whose father Gary played 11 years in Major League Baseball and is the current third base coach for the Houston Astros. “I know there’s always going to be criticism.”
That said, while Pettis professes to let most criticism roll off his back — especially on social media — he does consider some critiques. Last week, Pettis asked one local writer why he called him a bust. He wanted to know how a bust was defined.
He’s since continued to improve on attacking the ball and becoming a reliable pass-catcher in practice, and battled through a strained pectoral muscle that nagged him through the final stretch of training camp and into the first few weeks of the regular season.
Against the Los Angeles Rams in the 49ers’ biggest game of the season thus far, Pettis showed just how far he had come, catching three passes for 45 yards and nearly snagging a toe-tapping touchdown pass, before he was pushed out of bounds mid-air. All three of his receptions came over the middle of the field.
“He was flying there all the way and just to watch Dante make a conscious decision just to go up for the ball, not care what happens, he went up for it aggressively, came down, made a hell of a play,” Shanahan said. “Dante’s got a lot of ability, he’s getting better each week. Love having him on our team.”
Without both of their starting offensive tackles and perhaps their most valuable asset in the running game in Kyle Jusczcyk, the 49ers will be relying on their passing game much more as they try to extend their 5-0 record to 6-0 and beyond.
This is where Pettis can show the 49ers that he is worth the second round pick that was spent on him last year. More importantly, though, he’s concerned about proving it to himself.
“It’s not that I feel pressure from them, it’s that I feel pressure for myself,” Pettis said. “Cause I know what I can do. So when I’m not doing that, it’s kind of frustrating. But I know it’s part of the game.”