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.”
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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.
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.”