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.
“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.”