49ers Mailbag: Why hasn't Dante Pettis gotten chance to return punts?

Matt Maiocco

The 49ers – or some collection of players resembling the 49ers – will be back at it on Sunday at Levi's Stadium against the Arizona Cardinals.

In Week 9, Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 317 yards and four touchdowns, and nobody was expressing concern about the team's pass-catchers after a 28-25 victory over the Cardinals.

But, playing without tight end George Kittle and Emmanuel Sanders, there were a lot of dropped passes and many concerns about the state of the team's passing game following a 27-24 loss to the Seattle Seahawks on Monday.

This edition of 49ers Mailbag focuses on the state of the team's receivers, as the 49ers look to bounce back from their first loss of the season.

Dante Pettis was set to return punts on Monday night, but the 49ers changed their plan and decided to have Richie James active in place of cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon, who was deemed not ready to return. So it's possible that Pettis, at some point, will be back there.

But the 49ers have emphasized Pettis' development as a wide receiver. He sustained a knee injury on a punt return against the L.A. Chargers early in his rookie season that shut him down for several games.

Pettis returned nine punts as a rookie and he fumbled twice. He did not look comfortable catching punts. I'm not sure that his style is a fit for the NFL. Pettis was so good in college because he was a better athlete than almost anyone else on the field. He could dance to avoid tacklers. He returned an NCAA-record nine punts for touchdowns during his career at the University of Washington.

In the NFL, that style generally does not work. The players are too fast, too agile and too strong.  Punt returners have to get up the field and get up the field quickly.

Richie James has been very good as a punt returner. He's been one of the best in the league with a 9.3 average and no fumbles on a league-high 25 returns. There has been no reason for the 49ers to make that change.

Coach Kyle Shanahan has made no secret that he expects more from Pettis. He has tried everything, and the production has not been there.

I don't believe Pettis or Marquise Goodwin are going anywhere this season – though the 49ers will have a difficult decision to make if Jalen Hurd is able to play at some point this season.

Next year, many of the team's receivers may not have guaranteed roster spots in San Francisco. Pettis will have to earn a third season with this team.

Pettis' situation is very similar to what Ahkello Witherspoon experienced in his second season. In both cases, those players finished their rookie seasons very strong. Then, whether they thought they had it figured out or not, they did not show the same urgency in Year 2. In the case of Witherspoon, he came back for his third year with a renewed commitment and drive. That's what Pettis must do in order to salvage his career with the 49ers.

Goodwin is scheduled to make $4.5 million next season. The 49ers will have to determine if they believe he is worth that price.

Emmanuel Sanders has a rib injury and is listed as questionable. I interpreted the fact that he participated in the team's walk-throughs as a sign that Sanders has a good chance of playing in the game.

He was eligible to return to practice this week, but the 49ers determined he was not ready. Hurd has been out since after Week 1 of the exhibition season due to a stress reaction in his back. The 49ers are going to be careful with Hurd because once they bring him back to practice, that counts for one of the team's two possible players who can be brought back from injured reserve. Back injuries are unpredictable, so it's difficult to gauge when he will be ready to practice. And it's impossible to predict how his back will hold up once he returns to practice.

I do not believe George Kittle has a chance to play on Sunday, even though he told me, "I'm feeling fantastic."

When I asked Shanahan if he feels as if he has to protect Kittle from himself, he answered, "There's no doubt about it." Kittle would play, if given the choice. 

I think the 49ers will be cautious with Kittle and hope to get him back next week against the Green Bay Packers.

Running back Matt Breida will not play. That means Tevin Coleman will start, and the 49ers will also mix in Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson.

Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon is expected to be back on Sunday after being out since Week 3 with a foot sprain and quadriceps injury. Emmanuel Moseley has played very well in Witherspoon's place, but the 49ers have said Witherspoon will return to his starting job.

The question is whether they will throw Witherspoon back out there this week. I asked Shanahan that question on Friday, and he declined to publicly share the team's plan for Witherspoon.

"Are you trying to trick me?" Shanahan said. "He's going to be out there this week. He is questionable, so something could happen here over the next two days where he's not available to go, but he's shown that we can put him out there. I'll decide right at kickoff how long that is."

However, I do not anticipate the 49ers using more defensive packages involving six defensive backs to get Moseley on the field. In most passing situations, the 49ers will go with their two cornerbacks, nickel back K'Waun Williams, and their two safeties.

That locker room was about as glum as I remember. I think there were several reasons for that.

One, of course, was the loss to the Seahawks, and the feeling that they let one get away. In one corner of the locker room was Kendrick Bourne, who was very disappointed with his dropped passes. Several of his teammates went over to offer support. Then, there was Ronald Blair on crutches with what everyone knew at that point was most likely a season-ending knee injury. So there was sadness and empathy for one of the most popular players on the team. All those elements contributed to a very quiet and somber locker room.

I'm not going to tell you how to think, but my feeling is the 2019 San Francisco 49ers will be judged on how they finish the season. This book has yet to be completed. The first few chapters got our interest. It's been a page-turner.

[RELATED: Jimmy G can right the ship in 49ers' showdown vs. Cardinals]

But what will be remembered most about this season is what happens at the end.

49ers Mailbag: Why hasn't Dante Pettis gotten chance to return punts? originally appeared on NBC Sports Bay Area