How Dante Pettis' hard NFL lessons helped him seize Bears opportunity

·5 min read

How hard NFL lessons helped Pettis seize Bears opportunity originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

LAKE FOREST – Dante Pettis knows all too well how fleeting NFL opportunities can be. When the moment arises, you must seize it if you want to cling to your professional life.

After making the Bears' 53-man roster Tuesday, Pettis has given himself a new lease on NFL life.

"I've been asking God for an opportunity," Pettis said Tuesday after practice. "I was going to work as hard as I could. Whenever that opportunity was, I was going to be ready for it. It feels good to have that pay off at least for this short period of time."

Pettis' career started close to the NFL mountaintop when the 49ers traded up to select him in the second round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

A smooth route-running receiver from Washington, Pettis landed in the ideal situation, playing in a Kyle Shanahan offense that prioritizes getting open over the middle of the field and racking up yards after the catch.

But Pettis' tenure in the Bay wasn't the dream many conjured up. After a solid end to his rookie season,

Pettis showed up to 49ers' camp out of shape and quickly fell out of favor with Shanahan. His playing time dwindled during the second half of the 2019 season, and he was inactive for the 49ers' Super Bowl LIV loss to the Kansas City Chiefs.

Shanahan challenged Pettis to come back stronger and more focused after a disappointing sophomore season. But Pettis didn't reverse course during the 2020 season, and the 49ers waived him after being unable to trade him before the deadline.

The New York Giants claimed Pettis, but he could not break through in the Meadowlands. After catching 38 passes for 576 yards and seven touchdowns in 28 games for the 48ers, Pettis caught just 14 passes for 163 yards and two scores in five games for the Giants.

The disappointing season in New York saw Pettis head into free agency with limited interest. NFL purgatory can be death for young receivers past their first and second chances.

The Bears called for a workout in May, and Pettis arrived in Chicago prepared to take full advantage of an opportunity to join a team without many proven receivers. After a successful workout, the Bears signed Pettis to a one-year contract.

In a crowded receiver room filled with guys fighting for their NFL existence, Pettis worked hard to showcase his versatility as a reliable receiver and punt returner. His ability to get open against man and zone has also given quarterback Justin Fields a comfort level with the former second-round pick.

"He's done a great job," offensive coordinator Luke Getsy said of Pettis. "I think an opportunity was presented and he's gone out and taken it by the horns. He's done a great job of being able to have flexibility to play multiple positions. He's presented one-on-one opportunities and he's won them, both in the practice and the preseason games. In our game, you've got to have guys that are able to win those one-on-one battles. He's done a nice job with that."
After being kicked to the curb by the 49ers and having his second chance in New York slip through his fingers, Pettis arrived in Chicago with a different view of the opportunity. The tough lessons from an early career fall gave him a different perspective on finding an NFL home and sticking there.

"I think every young football player, as they go through their seasons, learns a lot," Pettis told NBC Sports Chicago. "I think my lessons were, I don't want to say harder than anybody else's, but it was just a different situation than most people's journeys. So, it did teach me a lot. Not that I didn't take football serious or anything, it's just a different approach to it.

"Opportunities are not as easy to come by once you're out of that first two years. Those first two years, I feel like teams are a lot more lenient with players. They give their young players those opportunities and stuff. As the years go on, especially if you're not one of those proven vets, you're opportunities get smaller and smaller. So just being able to take advantage of those, being ready for every opportunity that's thrown at you."

Pettis looked to be behind the eight ball after missing a week of training camp due to an injury. With a crowded receiving corps, time on grass could have very well been the determining factor when it came to final roster spots.

But Pettis eked through the cut and now is one of three healthy Bears receivers on the active roster and the second most-accomplished receiver in the entire group. While that's not saying a lot, the state of the Bears' unheralded receiving corps presents a chance for Pettis to resurrect his career if he can continue to build chemistry and trust with Fields.

Grizzled by his early-career tribulations, Pettis doesn't view this as anything more than a chance to play the game he loves. He knows it can be taken away in an instant.

"Every day you have to prove what you can do," Pettis told NBC Sports Chicago. "I've learned that the last couple years. Guys can come in as high as can be and halfway through the season they're not even playing. Just come in every day with the attitude that I have something to prove, that little chip on my shoulder and being confident in yourself and being able to go to work every single day."

Pettis couldn't find a long-term home in the Bay or the Meadowlands.

But he's still only 26 years old. His route-running and versatility have given him another shot in Chicago.

One he knows he can't afford to waste.