Apart from backup quarterback (a race that has seemingly ended in a tie), the most tightly-contested training camp battle for the San Francisco 49ers has been at wide receiver.
With free agent Jordan Matthews and rookies Deebo Samuel, Jalen Hurd and Shawn Poindexter joining a group that included incumbents Richie James Jr., Trent Taylor, Kendrick Bourne, Dante Pettis and Marquise Goodwin, San Francisco had their pick of eight NFL-quality receivers, including their own returning starters.
With two weeks to go until the opener, the 49ers are no closer to finding a final six than they were when training camp started. There is little certainty surrounding the position group, especially surrounding Pettis, a prospective No. 1 who stayed in through the fourth quarter in Saturday’s third preseason game.
“I believe he needed to be [in],” said head coach Kyle Shanahan. “He’s still trying to earn a role on this team and show what he’s capable of doing, consistently.”
Expected to stretch the field and contribute his noted returning skills to special teams, Pettis was electric for brief moments as a rookie, but has seemed to be in Shanahan’s doghouse for several months. When asked about his offense on a Sunday teleconference, Shanahan rattled off a list of names that need to be healthy come Week 1. Pettis was there, sort of.
“When you get guys back like [George] Kittle, if we could get Jet [Jerick McKinnon] back — we’ll see how that goes this week — when we get everyone healthy, when we get (Jalen) Hurd out there healthy, when we get Pettis playing up to his potential, we’ve got a number guys on our team who can take us completely to another level,” Shanahan said. “A lot of that has to do with guys getting healthy and also guys playing to their potential. What I’m excited is I can say that about a lot of guys on our team. Now we have to see if we’ll do it or not.”
Pettis has yet to truly separate himself from a list of receivers who have all made at least some sort of noise in camp. Bourne has been the most depndable, most technically-sound pass catcher, but that’s not very sexy on Sundays, and even then, he’s had some lapses.
Hurd has had his faults, but his size and physicality plays. Samuel is a jack of all trades, highly valuable in Shanahan’s system. James has gotten an extended look as he battles for the sixth spot, leading the team with 11 catches for 111 yards, but no touchdowns. Goodwin has caught just one pass, and spent a chunk of last year injured. Poindexter went down with an ACL and was released.
From that group, Pettis hasn’t found a way to stand out.
On Saturday against the Chiefs, Pettis caught is first three passes of the preseason. One that he missed was an underthrown pass that Shanahan thought Pettis should have made a stronger effort to corral — a Jimmy Garoppolo 20-yarder into triple coverage at the goal line.
“You shouldn’t throw into triple coverage in that situation,” Shanahan said. “We were fortunate not to have a pick. I’d like Dante to go up and try to make more of an attempt to catch it, but that’s a ball that should never leave his hands.”
There’s a reason Shanahan is demanding more of Pettis: The 49ers expect more out of the speedy, dynamic playmaker who terrorized Pac-12 special teams coordinators at Washington, and caught five touchdowns while averaging 17.3 yards per catch last season.
“I’m always pretty hard on the receivers,” said Shanahan. “I still think we need to keep doing better than we have been, though.”
Shanahan, though, had praise for Matthews — who the 49ers have tried out in the slot — as well as Bourne and James. Before Saturday’s game, Bourne and James had the most snaps of any receivers.
Of Bourne, Shanahan said: “He’s a big body who plays big. He’s fearless out there and is not scared to get hit. He blocks as well as any receivers we have on our team. He, like the other guys, just needs to be more consistent.”
Nick Bosa Update: Will the 49ers’ top draft pick be available for Week 1? It’s still TBA. He’s been rehabbing an ankle sprain, but it’s still unclear how close he is to actually playing.
“We know there’s a chance of him for Week 1, that’s what we’re hoping for, but that will get a little more clear after this week,” Shanahan said.
Injury Updates: San Francisco expects to see the following players back in practice at some point this week: Defensive ends Dee Ford (knee) and defensive end Ronald Blair (groin), tight end George Kittle (calf), Hurd (back tightness), safety Adrian Colbert (hamstring), guard Joshua Garnett (finger surgery), linebacker Elijah Lee (hand), running back Raheem Mostert (quadriceps) and defensive tackle Jullian Taylor (back).
Considering so many of the wounded are defensive starters, the fact that the 49ers have been noticeably quicker and more dynamic on defense in the first three preseason games has been notable, holding opponents to 16-of-45 on third down and allowing just three touchdowns.
“I’ve been happy with the standard of our defense of playing physical,” Shanahan said. “The way they’ve been running to the ball, I think they’ve been playing well despite missing some guys. I also felt similarly on offense, too.
Center Weston Richburg’s rehabilitation from a quadriceps repair is going very well, and there’s a good chance he might get activated off the physically unable to perform (PUP) list so he can practice this week.
“We’ll get to see him tomorrow when we bring him out onto the field,” Shanahan said. “If he’s good enough to go with some people, then we’ll get him off that so at least he can take some snaps with our quarterback and get a guy in front of him instead of just a bag and a trainer.”