© Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports
SANTA CLARA — As a competitive, physical practice winded down to its final series of team drills, the Dante Pettis-Ahkello Witherspoon showdown was on.
Witherspoon was dominant throughout 11-on-11s, erasing opposing receivers batting down balls, and letting everyone know by waving his finger like Dikembe Mutombo. Pettis had caught a pair of passes throughout practice, including a touchdown during red-zone drills.
On the final drive of the day, Garoppolo squeezed a throw in between three defenders to a sliding Pettis near the sideline. One play later, Pettis was targeted on a curl route, and the pass flew out of bounds as Witherspoon blanketed the rookie.
But Pettis got the last laugh. On the ensuing play, he beat Witherspoon to the outside on a go route, streaked up the sideline, and caught a pinpoint pass from Garoppolo for a touchdown. The play punctuated one of the most competitive, highly entertaining sessions of the early preseason.
It was also fitting for the steady progression Pettis has experienced throughout his first NFL training camp. After a couple quiet opening practices, he has since been one of San Francisco’s most productive receivers.
“He has gotten better each and every day,” backup quarterback CJ Beathard said about Pettis. “I think he’s going to be a great receiver in this league. He’s a guy that has great hands, will come back to balls, make big-time catches. The last few days especially he has really made great strides as this camp has gone on.”
The Niners traded up to the No. 44 spot in April’s draft to select Pettis. The most consistent concern of his pro prospects lamented his so-called lack of strength and physicality. He measures at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds.
What has recently become apparent is his bend at the line, quickness on cuts, and speed in space help compensate for that supposed weakness. You can’t jam someone if you can’t touch him. Pettis isn’t a flat-out burner like Marquise Goodwin — few players are — but he’s deceptively fast and rarely gets caught in the open field. After all, his nine career punt returns with Washington are the most in NCAA history.
“If you can make guys miss with your feet when you have the ball in your hand, you should be able to do it in routes, too,” Kyle Shanahan said after Tuesday’s practice. “To combine that with his speed and his hands and his intelligence, which he is very smart, you feel pretty confident that he’s going to continue to get better.”
Shanahan has long disputed that acquiring a big, physical receiver is necessary for the Niners to be a great red-zone team. He drafted Pettis ahead of bigger receivers because he can line up all over the field, whether out wide, in the slot, or being set in motion. Pettis will also impact the return game.
It figures that a guy with dyed blue hair and an obsession with cats has a bit of an unorthodox, though effective, game, too.
“He’s definitely different,” Pierre Garcon said Sunday. “(He’s) fast, but once he gets it going, gets familiar with playing in the NFL, he will definitely be great because he has speed, agility, he can catch, and he can make guys miss.
George Kittle dominated for a stretch
Kittle began to scratch the surface as his rookie year drew to a close. He capped the 2017 season with a four-catch, 100-yard performance and finished with 43 total catches for 515 yards throughout 15 games.
Kittle entered his second career camp fully healthy after battling injuries last season. His play has followed suit. Kittle has consistently connected with Garoppolo on intermediate throws throughout the opening days of camp.
On Wednesday, he caught three passes in quick succession, all of which were about 10-to-15 yards. That included a leaping, one-handed catch with his left hand near the sideline.
“He’s got his explosiveness back,” Shanahan said Saturday. “He’s a physical guy who can block well, and he’s got a year in the system where he’s got a lot more confidence. So, he’s not thinking as much out there. He’s definitely moving in the right direction.”
Beathard to attend grandfather’s Hall of Fame enshrinement
Beathard’s grandfather, Bobby, will be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame this upcoming Saturday in Canton, Ohio. He won four Super Bowls in 38 years as a general manager.
Beathard was unsure whether he should bring up the idea of missing Sunday’s practice to his coaches, but Shanahan made that decision for him.
“I know it means a lot to him,” Shanahan said. “He would never tell us, and he definitely didn’t ask. Then when I told him he had to go and he didn’t have a choice, then he told us how thankful he was.”
Eight 49ers players were held out of practice Wednesday. They include Arik Armstead (hamstring), Cole Hikutini (groin), Joshua Garnett (knee), Brock Coyle (hip), JP Flynn (knee), Kentavius Street (knee), Jimmie Ward (hamstring), and Marquise Goodwin, who was given a ‘vet day’ to rest. Aside from Street, who will likely miss the 2018 season with a torn ACL, Armstead’s injury is the only one expected to sideline him beyond this week. He is expected to miss around two weeks.
Odds and ends
-Running back Matt Breida ripped off a couple big runs during team drills. He has been very impressive so far. Breida attributes his play to a growing confidence and gaining 10 pounds of muscle this offseason, bulking to 200 pounds.
-Jullian Taylor started with the first-team at the big end spot that Armstead typically occupies. The Niners drafted Taylor in the seventh round of April’s draft. The Temple product has impressed the coaching staff during third-string reps and has been rewarded during the past two practices with first-team snaps.
-Kendrick Bourne caught a touchdown pass from Garoppolo during red zone drills.
-Malcolm Smith started at the middle linebacker slot alongside weak-side linebacker Reuben Foster.
-Trent Taylor partook in individual drills for the second straight day after missing time with a back injury. He still has not played in 11-on-11s.
The 49ers will practice Thursday and Friday before taking Saturday off. They will host the Dallas Cowboys in their first preseason game next Thursday night at Levi’s Stadium.