INDIANAPOLIS -- No punt returner in the history of college football was as dynamic as Dante Pettis.
But in two seasons since the 49ers traded up to take him in the second round of the 2018 draft, Pettis has gotten only 11 opportunities to return punts.
All of Pettis’ chances came during his rookie season. While his play time at wide receiver dwindled to non-existent over the second half of the recently completed season, he was not even able to make a contribution special teams.
Why? Coach Kyle Shanahan said it was as simple as this: Richie James was better.
“We didn’t think he was our best guy,” Shanahan said of Pettis at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Pettis set the NCAA record with nine punt returns for touchdowns. After Pettis visited the 49ers, the club selected him with the No. 44 overall draft pick. As a rookie, he fumbled twice while averaging just 3.0 yards on nine returns. He also sustained a knee injury on an early season return against the Los Angeles Chargers.
In 2019, James was reliable. He was fifth in the NFL in return yards and did not have a fumble on 33 punt returns while averaging a respectable 8.0 yards per return.
Shanahan said he wants Pettis to put up a battle to compete with James for the job in 2020. He said he has expressed that expectation to Pettis, too.
“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. I guess, it comes down to my decision, but he should make it for me.”
Pettis averaged 17.3 yards on 27 receptions and caught five touchdown passes as a rookie. But his production dropped off in his second season, as he caught just 11 passes for 109 yards and two touchdowns. He will be fighting for a spot on the 2020 team.
Shanahan said he wants Pettis to be on a mission during his second offseason to come back as a stronger, better and more-focused player. He said Pettis took a “documented” step back in his second season.
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Shanahan said second-year players who struggle after promising rookie seasons can go either way.
“They keep being like that, and they usually filter out,” Shanahan said, “or it’s a wakeup call for them and they come back and you see It in April. They treated January to April so much different than the year before, and then it usually changes their career.”