Spotlight - TE Eric Johnson, San Francisco 49ers
Posted 8/25 by Jason Wood and Chase Stuart,
Exclusive to Footballguys.com
Jason Wood's Thoughts
Admit it, you didn't see that coming. In a season that saw a renaissance of sorts at the TE position, Eric Johnson was the most surprising of the bunch. The former Yale Bulldog wide receiver caught 82 receptions for 825 yards and 2 TDs on route to a 7th place fantasy finish. He was the 49ers most reliable option and a key outlet all season long.
The difference between this season and last is his expected value. A year ago, you were able to draft Johnson late as your backup or even grab him off waivers once the season got underway. But this year, he's being drafted consistently among the top 10 tight ends.
Is he a reasonable bet to repeat his top 10 finish from a season ago?
The biggest concern, as I see it, is his injury history. Johnson has missed considerable time this preseason with a "foot injury." In the last 24 months, Johnson has suffered the aforementioned foot injury, "pressure" in his knee, a thumb injury and cracked ribs. And don't forget that he missed the entire 2003 season with a broken collarbone. Oh, and did I mention that he missed half of the 2002 season with back problems?
Can we reasonably assume Johnson will play the entire season? I don't think so, and for that reason I simply wouldn't feel comfortable with him as my top tight end. Yes, when he's on the field he's both effective and oft-targeted, but I would be stunned if he was on the field for the entirety of the season.
Add to that a new coaching staff, and the presence of # pick Alex Smith, it's unclear how Johnson will be utilized this year. If Arnaz Battle and Brandon Lloyd continue making strides as we believe, that should mean fewer check downs Johnson's way.
- Pro rating his per game averages over a full season = 63 receptions and 603 yards
- Johnson should remain one of the top targets in the SF passing game with a largely unproven WR corps and a lead RB (Kevan Barlow) who sometimes disappears from the receiving game
- Johnson has only scored 5 TDs in 40 NFL games
- His injury history reads like that of a 60-year old stuntman
- A new coaching staff and rookie QB throw added uncertainty into his outlook
All in all, Johnson should be a productive pass catcher, but you're not getting the bargain you were last season. Draft accordingly.
Chase Stuart's Thoughts
Eric Johnson burst onto the scene in 2004, with 825 receiving yards and two scores. Johnson is one of only nine TEs in NFL history to record 82 receptions in a single season. In weeks 4 and 5 of last season, Johnson totaled 23 catches for 175 yards!
Johnson didnít exactly come out of nowhere last year. As a rookie in 2001, he had an impressive 40 catches for 362 yards and ranked as the fifteenth best fantasy TE. He played even better in 2002, but spasms and a bulging disk in his lower back limited him to just eight games. In 2003, he was lost for the season with a broken collarbone. As a result, Johnson was considered a talented guy but one who had yet to live up to his potential or remain healthy in some time.
Last year he dislocated his right thumb, suffered from cracked ribs and strained his hip flexor. He even strained his left knee this May and missed mini-camp action. Johnson is a former WR in college, and thereís no doubting his ability to catch the ball and get open. Heís not in a high-scoring offense, but he is THE offense.
- Johnson was targeted well over 100 times last season, and should continue to be an integral part of the 49ers offense.
- Alex Smith and Tim Rattay should provide a nice upgrade over Ken Dorsey and Tim Rattay. Smithís as smart as they come, and may be able to succeed as a rookie.
- Cedrick Wilson, the teamís leading WR last year, is now in Pittsburgh. The 49ers donít seem to have any strong options at RB or WR this year, and Johnson may become an even larger part of the offense.
- Johnsonís productivity declined significantly as the season wore on. Whether or not that was due to injuries or defenses adjusting to him is unclear, but itís not a positive sign.
- The San Francisco starting RB and WRs (Kevan Barlow, Arnaz Battle and Brandon Lloyd) are the worst in the league; his numbers will take a hit if defenses double team Johnson constantly.
- Injuries. All tight ends get hurt, but Johnsonís already missed one full season and half of another. He was banged up a lot last year, and was even a game-time decision during his best week of the season.
A common school of thought says that rookie QBs help boost the stats of the teamís tight ends, because the rookie QB will look to his check down option before going through all his progressions. But Joey Harrington, Byron Leftwich and Ben Roethlisberger were highly drafted rookie QBs that didnít show any special inclination towards their tight ends.
Chris Weinke, Kyle Boller and Eli Manning passed a lot to their respective tight ends, but thatís because they had good tight ends: Wesley Walls, Todd Heap and Jeremy Shockey. Patrick Ramsey, Chad Hutchinson and Craig Krenzel didnít have very good tight ends, and didnít throw to them often as a result. The only strong example of a rookie QB recently boosting his TEís stats is David Carr, who helped make Billy Miller the seventh best tight end in 2002.
I donít think Alex Smith will help Eric Johnson because Smithís a rookie and heíll rely on him; I think Alex Smith will help Eric Johnson because Smithís a good quarterback. Heíll likely be the starter on opening day, and looks very NFL ready. But just about anything will be an upgrade over Ken Dorsey. Consider:
Tim Rattay was the QB for 8.5 games last year, while Ken Dorsey was the QB for 7.5 games. While Rattay was QB, Johnson had 55-578-2; with Dorsey throwing to him, Johnson was noticeably worse with just 27 catches for 247 yards and no scores. Johnson averaged 8.2 FP/G with Rattay, but just 3.3 FP/G when Dorsey was in. With a better QB (whether that turns out to be Smith or Rattay), Johnsonís overall numbers should improve.
Quotations from the Message Board Thread
To view the entire Player Spotlight thread (there's a ton of fantastic commentary in there),
Johnson had a great year last year. It could get better this year. 82 receptions is pretty good for a WR let alone a TE (3rd behind Gonzo and Witten). Johnson also had 119 targets last year. That was fifth-best among TEs. Not coincidentally, the 49ers ranked fourth in TE targets last year (136). In 2003, with Johnson out, the 49ers ranked 27th in TE targets (66).
Jesus, all you guys projecting 1000 yards for ERIC JOHNSON???? Lets not go overboard here.
MilleniuM Presents: Frank Black:
My only reservation about EJ is injuries. He gets hurt every year. Last year was the 1st in my recollection that injuries didn't cost him significant time. That's an anomoly to me, and I'm tempering my expectations based upon him missing a siginicant amount of games this year.
Eric Johnson Projections
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