49ers' Jalen Hurd, Deebo Samuel challenging Dante Pettis for starting job

49ers' Jalen Hurd, Deebo Samuel challenging Dante Pettis for starting job

SANTA CLARA -- After completing a promising rookie season, Dante Pettis was widely considered the only 49ers wide receiver with his spot in the starting lineup assured when training camp began.

Not so fast, coach Kyle Shanahan said Saturday following the 49ers’ 17-9 preseason-opening win over the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium.

After all, Pettis’ role on the team is being challenged by promising rookies Jalen Hurd and Deebo Samuel, who have aggressively entered the mix.

On a night when the 49ers chose to sit out nearly 20 healthy starters as precautions, Pettis started and played 17 snaps. Shanahan also seemed to issue a challenge to Pettis, the team's second-round draft pick in 2018.

“I wanted him to compete,” Shanahan said of Pettis. “We’re trying to see who our starting receivers are, and I wanted to get him a chance to get out there.

“Dante has a lot of room to grow. He can still get a lot better. So can a lot of the other guys.”

Pettis had only one ball thrown his way Saturday -- a pass from Nick Mullens that was broken up. Pettis reached back for the deflected ball and barely got a hand on it.

Hurd ended up capitalizing on his opportunities with touchdown receptions of 20 and 4 yards on passes from Mullens and C.J. Beathard. Hurd had three catches for 31 yards.

“He’s worked a lot in the slot, and he’s also worked a lot outside at Z, so he’s been doing both,” Shanahan said. “I know he played mainly in the slot in college, but we move most of our guys all over, and he’s capable of doing both.”

Samuel, the 49ers’ second-round pick this year, had two catches for a game-high 61 yards. He made a leaping grab of an underthrown 45-yard pass from Beathard. Samuel liked what he saw from his fellow rookie, too.

“He played pretty well,” Samuel said of Hurd. “Like Coach Shanahan said, we bring the physicality in the group. That over route for a touchdown that he caught, you can see with his big frame and with his body it is going to take more than one person to bring him down.”

Hurd and Samuel bring a different mentality to the 49ers’ receiver group. While Hurd was formerly a running back, Samuel looks like a running back and runs like a running back with the ball in his hands. Both are physical players -- an area of Pettis’ game that the 49ers would like to see him improve.

In a crowded receiving corps -- a group that also includes Jordan Matthews and Kendrick Bourne -- the rookies are beginning to separate themselves.

“A strong showing [Saturday], obviously,” Mullens said of Hurd and Samuel. “We know what they bring to the table, and it’s cool to see that. But at the same time, it’s a first step. It’s only the first preseason game and so we’re excited to see how they can go going forward.”

Said Beathard: “They’re definitely progressing well as rookies, I think. The rest of the offense is really coming along, and they’re doing a really good job.”

Hurd (6-foot-4, 227 pounds) showed his versatility Saturday when he lined up in the slot, took a pass on a crossing pattern and plowed over Dallas defensive back Kavon Frazier at the goal line. Hurd's second touchdown came when he lined up wide and made a leaping grab against tight coverage.

“I can do different things,” Hurd said. “We will see what they do with me. I love the opportunity, so I am just trying to seize the opportunity and make a play.”

Hurd was a running back who rushed for 2,635 yards and 20 touchdowns in three seasons at Tennessee. After an injury-plagued 2016 season, he asked to switch to wide receiver. When the coaching staff balked at that request, he transferred to Baylor for his final college season. The 49ers selected him in the third round of the draft this year.

[RELATED: Mullens, Beathard, neck-and-neck for backup QB]

“When I first switched to receiver, I was on the JUGS machine for a very long, long time,” Hurd said. “I would catch five to six hundred balls [a day] in the offseason when I switched over to receiver.

“I am really just playing it out and consistently staying on it. Being strong as well helps and then having good balls skills, which kind of goes hand-in-hand.”

2020 NFL Draft: How 49ers' John Lynch prepares while working from home


2020 NFL Draft: How 49ers' John Lynch prepares while working from home

The 2020 NFL Draft will be held as scheduled -- albeit remotely -- amid the coronavirus pandemic, keeping 49ers general manager John Lynch plenty busy during California's shelter-in-place order.

In-person visits with prospects at the team's facility or elsewhere are off, but Lynch said he is able to make the most of watching film of potential picks while working from his home office.

“People have a lot bigger problems than we do, I can tell you that,” Lynch told NBC Sports' Peter King for his "Football Morning in America" column. “This year’s a lot different than any year scouts and GMs have had, obviously, with all the challenges. But this time of year, what you really need is time.

"The other day, [coach] Kyle [Shanahan] called and said, ‘This is unbelievable! I’m getting so much done.’ And he’s right. He and I, this time of year, would be watching this tape in our offices, and the difference is our doors aren’t getting knocked on 50 times a day. I’m really getting a lot done.”

Lynch and Shanahan have more prospects to examine than they did a month ago. The 49ers acquired another first-round draft pick -- No. 13 overall -- when they traded dominant defensive lineman DeForest Buckner to the Indianapolis Colts. San Francisco, before then, was scheduled to make its first pick with the No. 31 overall selection.

[RELATED: 49ers' Jones switches agencies entering final year of deal]

That additional prep very well could've included watching Louisville's Mekhi Becton, whose Cardinals were on-screen in footage Lynch was watching during a video posted to social media last week showing how he was preparing for the draft at home. The offensive lineman is projected to be a top-10 pick next month, and Lynch simply wouldn't have had much reason to watch him with the 49ers' first pick set for the very end of the first round.

We'll know some of the players whom Lynch, Shanahan and the rest of the 49ers closely watched when the NFL draft begins April 23. The 49ers currently have seven picks: Two in the first round, two in the fifth, one in the sixth and two in the seventh.

Colts' DeForest Buckner, Sheldon Day driven by 49ers' Super Bowl loss


Colts' DeForest Buckner, Sheldon Day driven by 49ers' Super Bowl loss

Sheldon Day and DeForest Buckner will be teammates on a new team next season, driven by the last loss with their old one.

The defensive linemen joined the Indianapolis Colts this offseason via free agency and trade, respectively, after playing together for the 49ers since midway through the 2017 season. Day and Buckner's final games with San Francisco were in the 49ers' 31-20 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV, and Day said the pair has additional motivation after not lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy last season.

"It was right there in our hands, and all we had to do was squeeze it and grab it (in Super Bowl LIV), and we let up," Day told reporters on his introductory conference call last week (via Colts.com). "So ultimately we have a chip on our shoulders and we know how to get there, and now we know what to do to overcome that shortcoming that we had."

Buckner sacked eventual Super Bowl MVP Patrick Mahomes 1.5 times in the game, accounting for three of the 49ers' nine QB hits. Day, meanwhile, played a little over half of San Francisco's 76 defensive snaps and picked up a tackle.

[RELATED: 49ers' Jones switches agencies entering final year of deal]

The Indianapolis native played in a career-high 16 games with the 49ers during the 2019 regular season, and Day started each of San Francisco's playoff games. Day credited his growth to playing with Buckner, and he's going to continue picking his brain while they're still teammates.

"DeForest (has) made me detail my game," Day said. "So we would be working on pass-rush moves, bouncing ideas off of each other, just trying to make sure that our game grew together, and we're always giving each other tips. If I see something on film [I'm reaching] out to him, and vice versa. So, man, what a special guy he is."

All the while, the 49ers' Super Bowl LIV won't be far from either player's mind.