Young 49ers have opportunity to make statement in final three weeks

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Of the many young San Francisco 49ers playing a lot of snaps over the past few weeks, none have taken more encouraging steps forward than wide receiver Dante Pettis.

Over the past three games, only the Dallas Cowboys' Amari Cooper has more receiving touchdowns than Pettis' four. And his 255 receiving yards rank eighth in that span. That type of growth is exactly what coach Kyle Shanahan has talked about when telling his team how important the rest of this season is even after any hopes of a winning season evaporated.

It's also why Pettis will continue to get plenty of snaps in the final three weeks.

“That’s definitely the plan right now," Shanahan said. "Dante, we haven’t been ready to throw him out there a ton because he’s shown he’s not 100-percent fully ready to handle that. But, what has been neat to watch him is, when we didn’t have a choice and had to throw him out there, he did some things that he wasn’t ready for that we anticipated. But, by going through it, he got better as the game went with it."

To be sure, Pettis is far from the only young 49er with an opportunity and something to prove in the final three weeks. By now, tight end George Kittle is an established star and Pettis is growing. But, the Niners have quite a few youngsters with an opportunity to make a statement about their fit in 2019 and beyond.

With that in mind, here are five others with much to gain over the season's final three weeks:

QB Nick Mullens: The first-year QB has had his ups and downs but it's hard to deny his progress recently as he's put together back-to-back 300-yard outings. He's also managed to throw for nine touchdowns and win two games in his five starts. Mullens entered in a tough spot, and though he needs to cut down on the turnovers, his work habits and knowledge of Shanahan's scheme have paid off. Shanahan has said Mullens has done enough to battle C.J. Beathard for the backup job in the offseason but if Mullens can keep progressing, it would be hard to not at least call him the favorite to be Jimmy Garoppolo's backup moving forward.

SS Marcell Harris: After missing his final collegiate season and the first half of this season with an Achilles injury, it was only natural to expect some rust with Harris. That rust showed in his first start against the Seahawks in Week 13. Harris missed tackles and had some hiccups in coverage. He bounced back against the Broncos, tightening up the tackling and offering the physical presence the Niners look for at strong safety. Harris is clearly unafraid to hit, and with Jaquiski Tartt dealing with a shoulder issue, there should be more playing time for Harris in the next three weeks. It's probably not enough time to claim a starting job in 2019 but it could be enough to be part of the conversation.

DB D.J. Reed: Reed has played a variety of roles this season as a returner, free safety and nickel corner but he had his best game on defense last week against the Broncos while playing a lot of snaps at nickel. Reed had 12 tackles, three for loss and a sack and looked like a natural fit in the slot as he replaced the injured K'Waun Williams. Williams has been a steady hand in that role the past two seasons but Reed played well enough to get more work there. Like Harris, it's probably too early to say Reed has a chance to win the starting spot but he also has a chance to ensure he's a factor when the Niners look ahead.

DT D.J. Jones: Starting nose tackle Earl Mitchell has had a solid season and Shanahan has been pleased with what Mitchell has brought to the table. But Jones got his chance to start against Denver and his effectiveness stuffing the run helped slow down one of the best run games in the league. Mitchell has two years and $4.45 million cap charges in each of those years remaining on his contract. It's a modest price for a good player with a strong locker room presence. Still, Jones is one of the team's strongest players and should get more chances to solidify a spot.

LB Elijah Lee: Reuben Foster's departure and the continued injury woes of Malcolm Smith have left the starting WILL linebacker job to Lee, who played 71 defensive snaps against Denver. Lee had a solid game, showing a physical presence against the run and some coverage ability. Smith has been a disappointment as a free-agent signing, largely because of injuries, but the Niners could move on from him without much of a hit after the season. The Niners will probably look to add more competition at this spot regardless, but Lee has a chance to ensure he's part of that competition with a strong finish.