SANTA CLARA — Wes Welker, ex-NFL receiver and returner extraordinaire for Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, has just the plan to make Dante Pettis flourish like that for Jimmy Garoppolo and the 49ers.
“I want him to just have that mentality like, ‘You’re going to make every damn play out there,’ ” said Welker, who’s been commissioned this year to coach the 49ers young and mostly unaccomplished wide receivers.
Pettis wasn’t taken aback when relayed Welker’s words.
“That’s something I didn’t do that good of a job of last year: I wasn’t making those tough catches,” Pettis said after Tuesday’s organized team activities. “That’s something I’m working toward.”
For Garoppolo to succeed in his return from knee reconstruction, for the 49ers to snap out of their five-year playoff drought, for tight end George Kittle to get help with the receiving workload, all eyes are on the lookout for a No. 1 wide receiver to emerge, presumably Pettis.
Otherwise, it’ll have to be Marquise Goodwin, Trent Taylor, Kendrick Bourne or rookies Deebo Samuel and Jaylen Hurd, the latter two having sat out Tuesday’s practice with apparently minor injuries. The 5-foot-8 Taylor, of course, is forever Welker’s look-a-like, so much so that Taylor said “when I got to college, I don’t think anyone knew my real name; it was just ‘Wes.’ “
“People don’t think we have a top guy, so there’s really no expectations anyway,” Pettis said. “If I’m the top guy, OK, great. If Marquise (Goodwin) is the top guy, great. Someone is going to step up.”
Pettis, last year’s second-round draft pick, had five touchdowns among his 27 receptions and 467 yards as a rookie. Coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch said earlier this offseason they want Pettis’ post-rookie jump to rival Kittle’s last season, when Kittle merely set the NFL single-season record for yards by a tight end.
When Pettis stepped up at the University of Washington and returned nine punts for touchdowns, paying close attention was Welker, a then-Houston Texans offensive assistant and the former NCAA record-holder with eight punt returns for TDs at Texas Tech.
“He broke my record. It was fun to watch,” Welker said. “It was weird to watch his body movements, just because he’s got that Gumby style to him of being able to accelerate and stick his foot in the ground, do these funky moves, and bend and twist his body.”
Such moves help shake cornerbacks, and they could be used more this year as a punt returner. Welker doubled up as a receiver and returner in his NFL days, arriving as an undrafted free agent in 2004 and becoming a magnificent dual-threat on the Patriots (2007-12).
To no surprise, Welker’s win-first mentality gives him no hesitation about deploying Pettis as a punt returner. In Pettis’ injury-stalled rookie year, he had only 9 returns for 27 yards. Pettis has no qualms for more chances, though he said Taylor was “obviously” the best option last year as the incumbent.
Pettis feels his legs are stronger since he’s bulked up from 188 pounds to 197 pounds, his ideal weight for this season. Now Welker wants him mentally stronger, too, and that includes on ever-precarious routes over the middle.
“For him, it is more of a mindset, knowing those guys can’t hit you like they used to,” Welker said. “You’ve got to have the mindset that you’re indestructible.
“Even though you’re not, in your mind, you have to have that feeling within yourself that, ‘I’m going to run through this ball, I’m going to run through this catch. I’m going to do all these different things.’ Your mentality on the field always has to be that way or it’s never going to be as clean as you want it to be.”
Welker is being assisted with his group by former NFL receiver Miles Austin and third-year coach Katie Sowers, while Mike LaFleur is devoted more to coaching quarterbacks as the passing game coordinator.
Pettis said of Welker: “Being able to learn from him, seeing the stuff he did so well, and hear why it worked, it’s super cool, not just for me but the rest of the guys.”