49ers' Dante Pettis has opportunity with Deebo Samuel, Richie James hurt

49ers' Dante Pettis has opportunity with Deebo Samuel, Richie James hurt

Deebo Samuel, a receiver who can line up just about anywhere in the 49ers’ offensive formation, underwent surgery last week to repair a Jones fracture in his left foot.

Because of the delicate nature of the surgery and recovery, as well as the position Samuel plays, it is just a guess as to when he will be back on the football field. He says it will take 10 weeks for him to return. But that is an optimistic projection from the patient, who has little control of his own recovery.

Richie James, the 49ers' primary return man last season, is on the mend from a broken right wrist. He is expected to miss two months – or at least the first couple of weeks of training camp.

The injuries to Samuel and James put one player above all else in the spotlight. Third-year wide receiver Dante Pettis will be given an opportunity in August – assuming training camp is held as usual -- to improve his status with the team.

Pettis has an opportunity to bounce back from a disappointing second season, that is if his tumble down the team’s depth chart provided him with the spark he needed this offseason to fight for his old spot.

Coach Kyle Shanahan said in February that players who experience problems in their second NFL seasons can go one of two ways.

“They keep being like that, and they usually filter out,” Shanahan said, “or it’s a wakeup call for them . . . and then it usually changes their career.”

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

A year ago at this time, Pettis was projected to be the 49ers’ top wide receiver.

After all, he finished his rookie season strong after the 49ers traded up in the second round to select him at No. 44 overall in the 2018 draft.

Pettis impressed Shanahan with his route-running – particularly his ability to get defenders leaning one way, then break off his patterns to create immediate separation. Pettis’ unique ability to run routes has not diminished, but he has to be more willing to take his routes over the middle, into the teeth of defenses.

Pettis sustained a knee injury early in his rookie season and another one later in the season that landed him in injured reserve. But in the six games he was healthy between his two injuries, he caught 24 passes for 371 yards and four touchdowns. That production should have been a mere starting point for his second year in the NFL due to his knowledge of the offense and grasp of his expectations.

Instead, all the promise Pettis showed during the offseason program was rendered meaningless when the team’s coaching staff quickly saw last summer that he did not keep up his work in the six-week period leading up to the start of training camp. His second NFL season was a disaster, as he caught just 11 passes for 109 yards in 11 games. He was declared inactive for the Super Bowl despite being healthy.

The injuries to Samuel and James open doors for Pettis to prove himself – as a receiver and return man. For as long as Samuel is out, it likely would take multiple players to compensate for his loss. But while James is sidelined, all the 49ers need is for one player to step forward.

[RELATEDHow Deebo Samuel's foot heals could make or break 49ers' 2020 season]

If Pettis really wants it, he can get it.

Pettis set an NCAA record with nine punt returns for touchdowns during his career at the University of Washington.

But as a rookie, Pettis did not look confident fielding punts. He fumbled twice and averaged just 3.0 yards on nine attempts. The reason James handled punts last season for the 49ers was because, simply, he was better, Shanahan said. But the coach also made it clear to Pettis the door is open for him to compete for that job in 2020.

“He knows that,” Shanahan said. “I think he’s got a chance to be (the punt returner). But we felt more comfortable with Richie. And I hope Dante tries to take that job from him.

“It’s his decision. He’s got to show it.”

Joe Staley shows off impressive weight loss since 49ers retirement

Joe Staley shows off impressive weight loss since 49ers retirement

Joe Staley's work ethic never was in question during his decade-plus career as the 49ers' starting left tackle, and it appears that determination has continued into retirement.

Staley told ESPN's Emily Caplan in early July that he already has lost 50 pounds since retiring from the NFL in April, and a picture shared on Twitter by Sports Illustrated's Grant Cohn definitely shows the former offensive lineman's body transformation.

[RELATED: 49ers' Bosa 'not going to blame ref' for Super Bowl no-call]

"As an offensive lineman, you're always known as this big, humongous, unathletic blob," Staley said to ESPN. "Offensive linemen get casted in a movie, and they're always 500 pounds. Then you get the opportunity to be healthy again, and all of the effort you used to put into football, you put into that. It gives you a focus once you retire. It's a little bit vain, but I'm starting to see abs that I've always wanted. And it's kind of exciting."

Offensive lineman often must eat an incredible amount of food to maintain the 300-pound frames typically seen across NFL rosters.

Staley seems to be enjoying his retirement.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

49ers' Trent Williams expects Jerick McKinnon 'breakout' 2020 season

49ers' Trent Williams expects Jerick McKinnon 'breakout' 2020 season

Trent Willams has seen more of what Jerick McKinnon can do on the football field than just about anyone over the last two years.

And when the 49ers’ new left tackle was asked which teammate he was most eager to watch on the field, McKinnon was at the top of the list.

“I’m looking forward to seeing Jet,” Williams told the Bay Area media on a video call. “After two years, the way he’s looked in the offseason, I just can’t fathom him not being a breakout player.”

The 49ers were expecting so much from McKinnon after they signed him on the first day of free agency in 2018, coach Kyle Shanahan had planned to unveil an offense in the regular season that would focus heavily on the running back’s ability as a route-runner and pass-catcher.

But McKinnon sustained a torn ACL one week before the regular-season opener. When the graft from that surgery did not fill in properly, McKinnon lost a second consecutive season. McKinnon accepted a greatly reduced salary this year to remain with the 49ers.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Williams, a seven-time Pro Bowl player, saw plenty of McKinnon’s skills during the offseason as he, McKinnon and Deebo Samuel were among those who worked out with star running back Adrian Peterson.

Samuel described those training sessions as the “one of the hardest workouts I’ve been doing since I’ve been playing football.”

McKinnon has been cleared to take part in 49ers practices, which begin Aug. 15. The 49ers’ first padded practice is scheduled for Aug. 17.

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Thrived through the worst of it

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McKinnon figures to be a big part of the 49ers’ offense as a third-down back. Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo recently said he is looking forward to seeing McKinnon take what he’s showing in workouts onto the field during the regular season.

“Even just throwing routes on air this offseason, he runs them differently than most running backs and he has a feel that's like a receiver, but he feels space like a quarterback,” Garoppolo said. “It's very unique and I'm excited to get him back, man. It's been a while.”

[RELATEDBosa says benefits of healthy offseason will show on field]

Williams ticked off other areas of the 49ers that have him excited, too. He spoke about tight end George Kittle and every level of the defense, including the “freakish” defensive line.

“I just want to get this team to a game,” said Williams, whom the 49ers acquired in an April trade with Washington. “It feels like college again, when we had three of the top four picks in the draft. I haven’t had this feeling since then.”

In 2013, Williams was one of three Oklahoma players to be chosen in the top four of the NFL draft. He went No. 4 to Washington, following quarterback Sam Bradford (No. 1 to the St. Louis Rams) and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (No. 3 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers).