Who will it be next?
Who will be the unexpected player who ends up in a significant role for the 49ers on Sunday in the NFC Championship Game?
The 49ers play the Green Bay Packers on Sunday at Levi’s Stadium with a trip to Super Bowl LIV on the line. And on the eve of the big game before the big game, we have another edition of the 49ers Mailbag.
Here we go.
San Francisco receiver Dante Pettis sits at his locker every day during the time when the doors are open to the media around the lunch hour.
It had been a while since I wandered over to chat with Pettis. But on Friday, I wanted to check in with him to gauge how he was holding up during a stretch in which he has not gotten into a game since playing seven snaps against the Green Bay Packers in Week 12.
Pettis has suited up for the past four games, but he has not gotten off the sideline. He has not caught a pass since he had a 21-yard reception on Oct. 31 against the Arizona Cardinals.
“I’m ready whenever that time comes,” Pettis told me. “Just waiting for that time now.”
Pettis, a second-round draft pick in 2018, was expected to be a starter and the team's top receiver after last season. Other than a game-winning touchdown catch with 1:15 remaining in a Week 3 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pettis has been quiet.
But Pettis knows at any moment he might be needed to go into a game for Emmanuel Sanders or Deebo Samuel. it has been one of the hallmarks of the 49ers this season. A seldom-used player is called up, and he takes advantage of the situation.
That’s the nature of this year’s team. Guys have stayed ready and routinely taken advantage of their opportunities.
“You know that’s the reality when you have one play or whatever, you just have that in your mind,” Pettis said. “This is the play I have, I have to make the most of it. A lot of people have done a good job of that.
“We have a lot of depth on our team, and everybody can see that. The guys are backing up, they feel like they are good enough to play. When I get my shot, I’m going to be ready because I know I’m good enough to be out there to compete with these guys.”
Pettis said he has worked a lot with assistant receivers coach Miles Austin, who has emphasized to him that he does not have to do “fancy stuff” on every route. Just take the leverage you have, Austin has told him, be quick and decisive.
After speaking with Pettis, I went over to see running back Jeff Wilson. He provided one of the big moments of the season on Nov. 17 against the Arizona Cardinals. Wilson played one snap in that game. In the final minute, he ran a great route of the backfield, caught a pass from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and turned it into a game-winning 25-yard touchdown.
But with Tevin Coleman, Raheem Mostert and Matt Breida ahead of him on the depth chart, Wilson has been inactive for four of the past five games.
Still, he remains ready with a great attitude.
“I just go out there and play like my life and my career depends on it because it actually does,” Wilson said. “I have a lot of stuff I’m trying to do, and I want to play this game for as long as I possibly can. And I know to do that, you have to make those plays whenever you’re called upon. Whether it’s one play or two plays, or if you go in to block, you have to do whatever it takes.”
Pettis and Wilson both said they feel energy and get inspiration from their teammates. Pettis said it’s exciting for him to see his friends in the receivers room experience individual success. Wilson said the other running backs treat him as an equal and he, in turn, feels an obligation to work hard and support them, too.
Oh, man, what a good question.
Ward is such an important part of the defense, so he gets the nod. He probably will not cost as much to retain, either.
But the 49ers have to feel pretty good about their options at both spots. There will be a time when Tarvarius Moore is a starting safety in the NFL. And at wide receiver, the 49ers hope to get Trent Taylor and Jalen Hurd at full strength next season.
But let’s not for a second downplay Sanders’ importance to the 49ers. He has been so good in so many different ways since arriving in an October trade from the Denver Broncos. But Sanders will be 33 next season, and difficult decisions must be made.
From the beginning of the offseason program, the 49ers have thoroughly impressed me with their approach. They are focused on business while also maintaining balance, being loose and having a lot of fun. I saw absolutely nothing different in their approach this week. It starts at the top, and I feel as if coach Kyle Shanahan was built for this.
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My guess is that TVs in the locker room will have the AFC Championship Game on, but there will be nobody pulling up a stool to watch. Dee Ford will be interested, for sure. The former member of the Kansas City Chiefs will check the score from time to time, but all the focus will be on the game that kicks off at 3:40 p.m.
Shanahan was not saying this week who will start at right cornerback. One would think Emmanuel Moseley will get the call, but Ahkello Witherspoon has to be ready to go. At the very least, he’ll play special teams, where he can make an impact in that area.
Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers playoff coverage at 2:30 p.m. Sunday for “49ers Pregame Live,” with Laura Britt, Jeff Garcia, Donte Whitner, Ian Williams and Grant Liffmann previewing the NFC Championship Game against the Packers. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on “49ers Postgame Live,” starting at approximately 6:30 p.m