When it comes to NFL lore, the 49ers have a chapter all to themselves when it comes to the great wide receivers of the game. They drafted the greatest of all time, Jerry Rice. They drafted a top-five all-time WR, Terrell Owens. They also stumbled upon and drafted an unproductive wideout from Clemson, who would end up making one of the all-time plays in the history of the sport: the late, great, Dwight Clark.
After Owens, the franchise has been relatively terrible at drafting the position. They haven’t missed on all of them, but there have been far more Jason Hills and Quinton Pattons than there have been Michael Crabtrees and Trent Taylors.
As we enter 2018 with lofty expectations, the powers that be have brought forth three new participants into the wild and wacky world of 21st Century, organically grown 49er wide receivers. Let’s take a look at how they may or may not fit into Kyle Shanahan’s system.
I was a bit stunned when Merton Hanks announced the 49ers’ second round pick on Day 2 of the 2018 NFL Draft after the team had just traded up. Did they actually trade away valuable assets for the chance to draft a punt return specialist and projected slot receiver when guys like Josh Jackson and Isaiah Oliver were still on the board?
Now I admittedly do not watch a ton of Pac-12 football, so before I busted out the pitchfork, I decided to go on a YouTube deep-dive and see what made John and the gang move up for this guy that many “experts” had pegged as a third-round receiver.
Let’s just say my mind was changed damn-near instantly. First and most obvious, Dante is not just a slot receiver. In fact, he didn’t even see significant snaps from the slot until his final season at Washington. This kid can destroy defenses from all over the field.
His route running is a sight to behold. Seriously, pull up virtually any game of his and watch the way this kid abuses and embarrasses defensive backs on a consistent basis. That, combined with his exceptional hands and high football IQ, had to have Coach Shanahan heavily salivating during the scouting process.
The head coach, who has proven that he can scheme receivers into open space, has to be bursting at the seams to open up the playbook in the red-zone with a dynamic weapon he didn’t have at his disposal last year. Not only does the rookie fake out defenders with his body, but he’s clearly put the extra work into his craft that results in wicked head fakes to sell a move on confused DBs.
In his junior year at Washington, Dante caught 53 passes for 822 yards and 15 touchdowns, blossoming into the productive wideout that Niner fans are hoping he’ll become at the pro level. His numbers took a slight dip in his final season, as he caught 63 balls for 761 yards and seven touchdowns. I suppose improving upon a 15-TD season is easier said than done. Once Jimmy Garoppolo is on the same page with Pettis, they’re going to be a dynamic duo from anywhere on the field.
There’s one other thing he did as a Husky that I suppose is worth mentioning. He set the all-time NCAA record for punt return touchdowns with nine house calls throughout his four year career. Sorry, Trent Taylor, but I think your punt returning days are over for the time being.
We all know what an offensive guru Kyle Shanahan is, and how he’s able to utilize the weapons on his roster. I’m willing to bet that the “Dante Pettis was a reach” narrative will die out in year one. Dante may not start right away, but he is a versatile receiver who will see a ton of action, and sooner than later, may just force his way into a starting role.
The 49ers may have struck fifth-round gold last year when they selected the scrappy Trent Taylor out of Louisiana Tech. He quickly developed a rapport with the newly-acquired Jimmy Garoppolo, and was a reception machine down the stretch, catching 17 passes on 20 targets for 191 yards (11.24 yards per reception) and one touchdown in his five games with Garoppolo at the helm.
The addition of Richie James appears to indicate that he will be competing with Trent Taylor for that primary slot role. A high-school quarterback who became a wide receiver at Middle Tennessee State, James makes up for his small frame with an electric playing style that’s bursting with big-play potential. A broken collarbone cut his junior season short at five games, but his freshmen and sophomore seasons were fantastic. As a freshman, he caught 107 passes for 1,334 yards and eight touchdowns. As a sophomore, he snagged 105 balls for 1,625 yards and 12 TDs.
James was also a threat out of the backfield, totaling 554 yards rushing and five touchdowns on just 61 attempts throughout his collegiate career.
For the first time in several years, the 49ers appear to have some very strong competition at the position, so making the 53-man roster will be a tough battle for James. I can see Coach Shanahan carrying six wide receivers on the opening day roster, with Richie James being one of them. He’ll not only provide insurance for Trent Taylor, and contribute on special teams, but he’ll also be able to see significant snaps in situational scenarios. Jet sweeps, anyone?
Going into this offseason, many fans (including me) were adamant about the team acquiring a tall, jump-ball receiver that would instantly cure the red zone production issues.
At 6’3” and 202 pounds, Steven Dunbar, and undrafted free agent from the University of Houston has the chance to become that guy. Dunbar is good at making catches in traffic, and routinely beats defenders going for the ball in the air. His route running is not spectacular, but it’s not bad either.
Given his size, he understandably lacks burst and top-end speed. I believe there are already pieces on the roster who can produce in the red zone, while still bringing much more to the table in other areas of the offense. The size is intriguing, but nothing else really jumped out at me while watching his tape. I’m looking forward to seeing him in action during the preseason in August, as that will be his biggest opportunity to force Kyle’s hand into including him on the opening day roster.
Dunbar’s coaches have gone on the record to praise his work ethic and dedication, but if I had to put money on it this early in the offseason, I’d wager that he will not make it through the final round of roster cuts.
Projected Wide Receivers on the 53 Man Roster
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