SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The one benefit for receiver Dante Pettis during a disappointing start to his rookie season for the San Francisco 49ers a year ago was that the knee injury that limited his playing time allowed him to learn the offense better.
That increased knowledge paid off with a prolific stretch late in the season that showed flashes of what the Niners believe Pettis can become and gave him a foundation to build on for year two when he is being counted on as a major part of the passing offense alongside record-setting tight end George Kittle.
"I think it's understanding the offense," Pettis said Sunday when asked the biggest difference in his second season. "Last year was just all over the place. But now that I actually know it, had the full offseason to really learn the offense and all that stuff. Now, I can just go out and play. I don't have to think, 'Do I line up here or there?' And all that stuff. Just go. That's when good stuff happens."
The 49ers need that kind of production out of Pettis this season if the offense is going to do big things with a healthy Jimmy Garoppolo back at quarterback. While Kittle emerged as a star last season when he set an NFL record for tight ends with 1,377 yards receiving, there is no proven No. 1 receiver on the outside as a complement.
The Niners don't have a single receiver with a 1,000-yard season in his career with speedster Marquise Goodwin and veteran Jordan Matthews having had the most production.
They are hoping Pettis can grow into that role this year.
"I want to see him improve a lot," coach Kyle Shanahan said. "I have a lot of belief in Dante, but I don't think he's there yet. I think there's a whole another level he can reach. He needs to do it with size, mentality and getting after it every single day."
Despite catching a 22-yard TD pass from Garoppolo in his NFL debut in last year's season opener, Pettis had a rough start to his career as he dealt with knee injuries early in the season and had only three catches through nine games as he missed substantial time with the knee injury.
Pettis said that time off helped him better learn the offense and it showed during a four-week span late in the year before he re-injured his knee in a Week 16 loss to Chicago.
Pettis had 17 catches for 338 yards and four TDs during that stretch, ranking ninth in the league in yards receiving and tied for second in TD catches during those games, showing why the Niners traded up into the second round to take him in the 2018 draft.
"He took some time to adjust early on," Goodwin said. "But now the boy's a beast. He has crazy legs."
The passing game didn't look great on the second day of training camp, with Garoppolo struggling to complete passes in team drills beyond a few short throws.
San Francisco's oft-criticized secondary even came up with an interception when Ahkello Witherspoon jumped in front of Pettis on a route to create the turnover.
"That's on me," Pettis said. "If he throws that ball, he's trusting me that worst-case scenario, it's a broken-up pass. That's something that I just have to get in my head that he's trusting me that this ball is not going to go to the other team no matter what. So he just kind of told me I trust you and you just got to like break down up or something. All right.
NOTES: OL Joshua Garnett left practice with a dislocated finger. ... Rookie WR Jalen Hurd got involved in a couple of scuffles after blocking downfield. Shanahan said he doesn't like fighting in camp and will look at the tape to see if Hurd was overly aggressive or the defenders got upset for no reason. ... The Niners will hold their first padded practice Monday.