Dante Pettis

Recent 49ers draft picks, veterans face make-or-break seasons in 2020

Recent 49ers draft picks, veterans face make-or-break seasons in 2020

The 49ers are not going to surprise anyone this year.

The club’s march to the Super Bowl was not something widely anticipated around the NFL heading into the 2019 season. And after coming oh-so-close to hoisting their sixth Lombardi Trophy, the 49ers have set themselves up to face more pressure to deliver in 2020.

The 49ers kept a large portion of their roster together, though such high-profile players as Joe Staley (retirement), DeForest Buckner (trade to Indianapolis) and Emmanuel Sanders (signed with New Orleans as a free agent) no longer are around.

It figures to be a lot more difficult to keep the team intact after this season due to rising contracts, expiring contracts and an uncertain salary-cap situation due to a likely precipitous decline in NFL revenues because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

Here are the 49ers who face the most obvious make-or-break seasons in 2020:

WR Dante Pettis

A year ago at this time, Dante Pettis widely was viewed as the 49ers’ No. 1 receiver. He appeared to have it figured out after a strong finish to his rookie season.

But when the 49ers broke after their offseason program and returned a month-and-a-half later for the start of training camp, Pettis had taken several steps backward. He caught just 11 passes the entire season, and none after Week 9. He plummeted down the depth chart, falling to the point that he was not even active for the Super Bowl.

Coach Kyle Shanahan likes Pettis’ skillset and route-running ability. Pettis is the best among the wideouts when it comes to running the choice routes. This is an important time of year for Pettis, whom the coaching staff would like to see come back stronger and play with more urgency.

With the increased competition in the 49ers’ receivers room, Pettis will have to show a lot of fight to keep up and win a spot on the 53-man roster.

CB Ahkello Witherspoon

The 2019 season began so well for cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon. But then he missed several games due to a foot injury. And when he returned to action, he struggled and Emmanuel Moseley replaced him during the postseason.

Witherspoon enters the final year of his rookie deal with a lot to prove. He likely will open training camp behind Moseley on the depth chart. How he practices and plays this season will determine the 49ers’ level of interest in retaining him beyond this season.

DL Solomon Thomas

The 49ers did not pick up the fifth-year option on their top selection of the 2017 draft. If Thomas plays really well this season as a rotational player, another team likely would make him a greater offer than the 49ers as a free agent next spring.

The most likely scenario for Thomas’ return to the 49ers in 2021 is if he is a steady player who would be willing to accept a near-minimum offer.

The organization has been supportive of Thomas through some difficult times. He has reason to feel indebted to the organization. Considering the 49ers selected him with the No. 3 overall pick and his pay has exceeded his production, it seems reasonable he would be willing to come back on a low-level deal.

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DE Dee Ford

Defensive end Dee Ford is scheduled to be the second-highest-paid player on the 49ers in 2021 at $16 million. His performance this year must justify the 49ers paying him that amount a year from now.

Ford appeared in 11 regular-season games last season while battling knee tendinitis and a hamstring strain. He registered 6.5 sacks and added another in the postseason.

The 49ers feel as if Ford “unlocks” the team’s pass rush due to his speed coming off the edge opposite of Nick Bosa. His presence enables the defense to go from really good to great. But he will likely have to show it a lot more often this season to collect his scheduled pay in 2021.

LB Kwon Alexander

The 49ers restructured linebacker Kwon Alexander’s contract late in the season. His scheduled pay for next year increases to more than $13 million. That is a hefty price tag, especially if Dre Greenlaw takes over as the full-time weakside linebacker.

Alexander must stay healthy, cut down on the missed tackles and generate more takeaways in order for the 49ers to devote that kind of cap space to him in 2021.

CB Richard Sherman

Cornerback Richard Sherman negotiated his own contract with the 49ers. He bet on himself. And after his strong performance during the 2019 season, he won.

Now, as he enters the final year of his contract, his career faces a crossroad. He is 32. This is his 10th NFL season. All the great things he has accomplished throughout his career as an NFL All-Decade selection will not be as significant in determining his next contract as how he looks and performs this year.

LT Trent Williams

Trent Williams, one of the top left tackles of the past decade, did not play last season. He returns to action in an offense that is a great fit for his combination of size, strength and athleticism.

Replacing Staley is a difficult chore. But the expectation for Williams is to actually exceed the high standard that Staley established over the past dozen seasons as the man who protections the quarterback’s blindside.

If Williams performs as expected, he could cash in big on the free-agent market after the season. It’s also possible if he returns to his usual dominant self, he might play himself to a salary level that the 49ers will not be able (or willing) to afford.

C Weston Richburg

Center Weston Richburg enters the third year of his original five-year, $47.5 million contract. Injuries were a huge issue during his first two seasons with the 49ers. He sustained a torn patellar tendon, was placed on injured reserve in early December and missed the team's postseason run.

His 2021 pay jumps to more than $8 million next season. In order for the 49ers to devote that money to him next year, he has to earn it during the upcoming season.

[RELATED: 49ers put pressure on Jimmy G by openly discussing Brady pursuit]

QB Jimmy Garoppolo

Let’s face it: Every year is a make-or-break year when you play this position.

But Jimmy Garoppolo is coming off the best season for a 49ers quarterback in nearly a quarter-century. The expectation is that he will be even better this season. That is why general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan, after carefully vetting Tom Brady, decided it was in the best interest of the organization to commit to Garoppolo.

“The guy’s done nothing but win since he’s been here,” Lynch recently told NBC Sports Bay Area. “A lot of people try to pick his game apart for whatever reason. All I know is the guy wins football games and he’s a tremendous teammate. Very talented young man, and I think his best football is still ahead of him.”

Looking ahead past this season, it does not appear likely the 49ers would have a reasonable option to provide an upgrade over the quarterback they have under contract through the 2022 season. Still, pressure comes with the job, and Garoppolo is already the most-scrutinized player on the team.

Comparing, contrasting 49ers receivers Brandon Aiyuk, Dante Pettis

Comparing, contrasting 49ers receivers Brandon Aiyuk, Dante Pettis

Kyle Shanahan has a type. The 49ers coach wants a receiver that isn't stuck to one position on the field. That certainly was a selling point for the 49ers trading up and selecting Brandon Aiyuk in the 2020 NFL Draft.

The same goes for Dante Pettis in 2018.

Shanahan could turn on Pettis' University of Washington tape and picture using him on the outside or in the slot. Aiyuk brings the same kind of skills. They also both were successful returners in college, although Pettis was better and set an NCAA record with nine punt-return touchdowns.

Aiyuk had 98 receptions for 1,666 yards and 11 touchdowns while averaging 17 yards per catch in his two seasons at ASU. Pettis, who spent four years in Washington, totaled 113 receptions for 1,583 receiving yards and 22 TDs over his junior and senior seasons.

And Aiyuk's peak was better with a less experienced QB. After being the No. 2 behind first-round draft pick N'Keal Harry as a junior, the former junior college product hauled in 65 receptions for 1,192 yards (18.3 yards per catch) and eight touchdowns as freshman Jayden Daniels' top target.

Pettis' senior season was his best as a returner, but his numbers as a receiver were down from his junior year. He went from 53/822/15 as a junior to 63/761/7 as a senior, both with an experienced Jake Browning under center.

The biggest difference between the two starts up top. Aiyuk has shown much more of a willingness to go across the middle and take on hits. Pettis, through his two years with the 49ers, has not.

"The thing that Kyle Shanahan likes about [Aiyuk] is the same thing that he liked about Dante Pettis," NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco said after the draft. "You can play him in all these different spots. You can play him outside the numbers, you can play him in the slot.

"The thing, though, about Aiyuk is he has this toughness and maybe a sense of urgency that Dante Pettis hasn't shown in his first two NFL seasons. And [Aiyuk] will take it over the middle. He's not afraid of getting hit." 

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

This surely was a big hit from Seattle Seahawks safety Bradley McDougald. It also highlights the main point with Pettis. You can see him look at the tackler before securing the pass and then he drops the ball.

The drop came on a third-and-14 and the 49ers were forced to punt on the next play in an eventual 27-24 overtime loss. 

Aiyuk is different. It's clear he's less concerned with contact and wants to be the aggressor. 

In his second NFL season, Pettis quickly fell out of favor with Shanahan. Plays like his drops against Seattle are a big reason why. It's mental more than anything for the former second-round pick. 

With a jam-packed receivers room, it seems Pettis could already be the odd man out. But general manager John Lynch said the 49ers haven't given up on Pettis. 

"I know a lot of people have soured on him, but we haven't," Lynch said one week ago on 95.7 The Game's "Joe, Lo and Dibs" show. "He didn't come to camp ready to play last year physically, and we challenged him. That's got to change.

"We believe, if he does, that he's a guy who can really excel in our offense."

[RELATED: 49ers' Aiyuk selection highlights team's emphasis on YAC]

Aiyuk hasn't had the chance to impress or disappoint Shanahan in person yet. His physical nature on tape says he'll be just fine. 

If competition can rub off on Pettis the right way, the 49ers' offense will be even better. Pettis has the talent, but he just has to put it all together.

Dante Pettis still can excel in 49ers' offense, GM John Lynch believes

Dante Pettis still can excel in 49ers' offense, GM John Lynch believes

The tail end of Dante Pettis' rookie year made it look like the 49ers found a steal in the second round in the 2018 NFL Draft. But then, he vanished from Kyle Shanahan's offense in his second season. 

While many 49ers fans quickly gave up on Pettis, general manager John Lynch says the franchise hasn't moved on from the young receiver.

"I know a lot of people have soured on him, but we haven't," Lynch said Thursday morning on 95.7 The Game's "Joe, Lo and Dibs" show. "He didn't come to camp ready to play last year physically and we challenged him. That's got to change.

"We believe, if he does, that he's a guy who can really excel in our offense."

Pettis caught 20 passes for 359 yards and four touchdowns over the 49ers' final five games in 2018. Last season, though, he played in 11 games last season and totaled only 11 receptions. 

Even after trading Marquise Goodwin to the Philadelphia Eagles during the draft, the 49ers now have a deep group of receivers. They added two more in the draft -- Brandon Aiyuk and Jauan Jennings -- and Lynch noted Jalen Hurd and Trent Taylor, both of whom missed last season to injuries, as two players they're excited to see this season. 

[RELATED: 49ers made right call to trust gut with Aiyuk over Lamb]

"Those are three guys, in addition to [Brandon] Aiyuk, that we feel could take a big jump if they're out there on the field," Lynch said. 

The 49ers know Pettis has the talent. Now, he has to prove it. And it won't be easy in a jam-packed receivers room.

[49ERS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]