Matt Waldman shares his RSP pre-draft NFL scouting report on 49ers WR Dante Pettis — his top-ranked receiver in this 2018 class.
1. Dante Pettis, Washington (6-0, 186)
Depth of Talent Score: 87.7 = Starter: Capable of a larger role and learning on the go.
Pettis is the reason that, if I’m seeking a top receiver in this draft, I’ll take a running back early—maybe two—and use others’ selections of Ridley and Moore as indicators for when to pull the trigger on this versatile option from the University of Washington who is unlikely to be a top-three receiver in most rankings. Pettis is not only one of the best route runners in this draft, he’s also one of its most dynamic aerial artists and ball carriers.
The fact that he’s neither the biggest nor the fastest should also ensure his value remains depressed. This is also true of his prospects in real football. Marvin Jones was a fifth-round pick. Brandon Lloyd was a fourth-round pick. Pettis reminds me a lot of both players. Throw a little Odell Beckham, Jr., into the mix, and Pettis is an underrated receiver prospect with more upside than characterized.
Pettis is quick off the line and keeps his pads over his knees to drive defenders into a backpedal. When pressed, Pettis has a variety of effective moves including a stick, a rocker step, a three-step release, a chop, a hook-plant-and-swim, shoulder reductions, and feints.
Contact does not deter Pettis and he’ll work through attempts to reroute him. When he earns clean separation, he’ll stack a defender to control position. He’ll struggle more often against top cornerbacks, but this is not a class filled with all-around talents.
Those that can potentially manhandle the Xavier Rhodes’ of the league can’t run with him or run a complete route tree. Those who can outrun this level of cornerback play, lack the physicality or arsenal of techniques to separate consistently.
Marvin Jones got shut down by Patrick Peterson last year and his battle with Rhodes wasn’t pretty, but he was ninth in yards, tied for third in touchdowns, the best in yards per catch, and the No. 5 fantasy option at his position. Pettis will likely have Jones’ development path.
His flexibility, footwork, and short-area quickness make him an effective receiver against man and zone coverage. He can take one long, hard step at the top of his stem and drop his weight into hard breaks. This pair of maneuvers is the ideal technique you want to see on hard-breaking timing routes.
His speed breaks also have a strong plant step, a smooth snap-turn, and a flat break. This is one area where his stems could be a little longer so his route depth has greater consistency.
Whether it’s against man or zone coverage, Pettis works towards the ball from his breaks and maintains good depth. When it’s man coverage, he’ll work hard towards the target with burst. When it’s zone coverage, he’ll slide to the open area.
Where Pettis’ route running is on another level compared to his peers is his ability to tell a variety of efficient stories. His double-moves on the out-and-up and the hitch-and-go are believable because of his footwork, pacing, weight drop, and how he turns his head in the direction of the false break.
However, it’s not just double moves where Pettis’ story-telling comes into play. He sets up longer-developing routes with miniature stories in his stems that can turn opponents around as he works them inside-out or outside-in.
Although there’s skepticism about Pettis’ speed, he has outrun cornerbacks on unadorned go routes. Quickness is the most important element here. Lloyd ran a 4.7-second 40 but had the necessary quickness.
The football world forever pegged Jones as a possession receiver because that was his role as a junior and senior at Cal. There weren’t enough people who examined Jones’ sophomore tape to see that he was a strong vertical threat. Even after the Senior Bowl where he dominated a good class of cornerbacks in the vertical game throughout the week of practice and ran a 4.46-second 40; 4.11- second 20 Shuttle; and 6.81-second 3-Cone at the Combine. He was considered an outlet option who was a deep threat because of his skill to play above the rim.
I have news for you. Few receivers have 4.3-speed or better. Those that do, often lack the skills to win the ball in the air or run good enough routes to take advantage of that speed. One of the better deep threat profiles rarely discussed is the quick receiver with excellent timing as a leaper, flexibility to adjust to the ball and the defender, and hand-eye coordination and toughness to win the ball at a contested catch point.
The first player I remember watching with this profile was San Diego Charger and Green Bay Packer John Jefferson, a 6-1, 198-lb. receiver who caught 199 passes for 3,431 yards and 36 touchdowns in 1978-80, averaging 17.2 yards per catch during that span. Jefferson was not a burner as much as he was an aerial artist. He might have been this profile’s granddaddy.
Regardless of his speed, Pettis is a descendant of that family tree. He’s an excellent tracker of the football and has great awareness of the boundary. Pettis is a good bet to win the ball in tight quarters. He drags his feet inside the sideline as he tracks the ball overhead. He’ll work back to the ball on a comeback and tap the toes as his momentum carries him out. And, he makes full extensions from his frame for the ball, including one-handed grabs while leaning towards the end line and getting a knee inbounds as a defender pulls on his other arm.
A fingertips catcher with excellent technique, Pettis can work against the momentum of his break and earn possession of the target. He’ll also shield opponents from the ball as he attacks the target or when he’s securing it to his frame.
Pettis can high-point passes as effectively as he scoops the ball off his shoe-tops on low targets. He’ll also take hits to his back and maintain possession. He’s not the best aerial artist to enter the NFL, but he is the type of receiver whose routes and skill at the catch point will earn the trust of his quarterback to deliver the target even when he doesn’t appear open.
The Pac-10 leader in career touchdowns on punt returns (overtaking Desean Jackson), Pettis is a productive player in space. Quick enough to turn pursuit angles into glancing blows or make them completely miss in traffic, Pettis bends away from angles at top speed.
He can also jump cut or spin from contact when he’s within a yard of a defender. He sets up opponents with layers of moves inside-out or outside-in as a runner in a similar way he does with routes.
Despite lacking great size, he does solid work after contact. He can bounce off multiple glancing blows, ward off contact with a stiff arm and run through wraps to his lower legs.
He’s fast enough to turn the corner on defensive backs in the return game and will often do the same in the open field as a receiver. His vision to set up blocks and hit them aggressively is one of his greatest assets as a runner.
There are moments where Pettis will make the catch and take too much time squaring up the defender then lose yardage trying to gain a little more than he would have if he simply split the pursuit over the top. Even so, Pettis has improved the wisdom of his decision-making after the catch and rarely attempts inefficient moves that could cost his team yardage.
Pettis carries the ball under either arm and will switch the ball when there’s an opportunity to do so safely. Even so, the ball hangs low and loose too often. He’ll tighten the carriage as he encounters traffic but it’s not always going to be enough. Pettis’ special team experience bleeds into his work as a blocker. He’s patient with his approach to sealing the edge in the ground game.
When he makes contact, he’ll move his feet to drive his opponent backward, turning the defender away from the ball carrier. Pettis has an uppercut punch and if there’s no time to punch, he’ll drop the shoulder for a bigger hit.
When he uses his hands, he’ll consistently turn the opponent. He sets up his stalk blocks with a good variation of his pace. He’s quick enough to work outside towards a defender over top, turn the corner, square the man, and still cut across the defender’s body.
When Pettis falters, he either fails to close the gap fast enough on the defender to deliver a balanced block or he overextends. He also can drop his head on good setups and lose his leverage. Overall, Pettis is one of the better blockers in this class.
Based on production, workout metrics (which he has not due to an ankle injury he’s nursing), and physical dimensions, Pettis is not a safe choice as the No. 1 receiver in this draft. However, this publication is about studying talent on the field. Pettis is as good of a route runner as any receiver in this class—including Calvin Ridley. He’s skilled after the catch like D.J. Moore but with a different style.
And unlike Moore and Ridley, he’s their superior at the catch point and releasing from the line of scrimmage against press. Add to the equation the arm strength to throw the ball accurately 30-40 yards downfield, and Pettis will bring a lot to a team.
Pre-NFL Draft Fantasy Advice: Pettis will not be the first receiver off the board in the NFL or fantasy drafts. He might not even be the fifth or seventh option taken. Although considered a Day 2 NFL pick, his profile and lack of workout data could drop him to Day 3.
That’s okay; this placement is about talent. It means that I see Pettis as an excellent value pick later in the draft. If you’re going to take a receiver early in a rookie draft, the next two on this list are wiser choices and you still might land Pettis.
Not long ago, I was touting Marvin Jones as a much better value than Stephen Hill. Although it took longer for Jones to reach my expectations for his career, Hill isn’t even in the league.
If you’re taking running backs, which I advise, you can wait for the consensus top 2-3 receivers to be taken before you begin thinking about Pettis. If you’re new to the RSP, this ranking may seem odd to you, but it happens a lot and my readers reap the benefits of value. Pettis is one of those candidates.
This analysis of Pettis is only the beginning of what you’ll find every year in the Rookie Scouting Portfolio publication. For most in-depth analysis of skill players available, get the 2018 Rookie Scouting Portfolio. If you’re a fantasy owner the Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2018 RSPs at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 each. You can pre-order the 2019 RSP beginning in December.