By Jerrell Richardson
CBS Local Sports presents 32 Players in 32 Days, a daily feature focusing on one impact player from each NFL team.
Stevie Johnson – WR – #13
Weight: 207 lbs
Hometown: San Francisco, CA
Experience: 7 years
After falling shy of their Super Bowl aspirations a year ago, the 49ers looked at their roster and went about addressing their one glaring weakness, the passing game. Despite a bevy of weapons for Colin Kaepernick to throw to last year, the team ranked 30th passing the ball, which is not good enough if they want another crack at the Lombardi Trophy.
The Missing Piece
While an injured Michael Crabtree and dominant running game had a lot to do with it, there were times in 2013 that the smash mouth San Francisco offense, when it needed to pass, was predictable at best. The ball was going to Anquan Boldin, or when he came back maybe Michael Crabtree. What was missing was not only a legitimate third receiving threat, but one with speed who poses a threat for the deep ball. With the addition of Stevie Johnson, the 49ers addressed all of these needs in one player.
The seven-year veteran not only adds another piece to an already dangerous offense, but in him the 49ers are getting a player who is highly motivated. Johnson is coming off his worst year statistically and wants to quickly silence any critics who question what he has left in the tank. The change in scenery will also do the Bay Area native well as, after all, there really is no place like home, especially when your home is California.
Motivation Not An Issue
Stevie Johnson was born in San Francisco and played his high school football in Fairfield, (less than 100 miles from the new Levi’s Stadium). What better place to write the next chapter of his career than in front of his friends and family? Having this extra support and his loved ones a hop, skip and a jump away, Johnson will have no problem getting fired up before games, as he will only want to make his new team and home state proud.
If getting a new start in essentially his hometown is not enough, keep in mind that Stevie Johnson is now in a big market and on a Super Bowl contender, two things that the Buffalo Bills are not. Johnson is the only Buffalo Bills receiver in history to record three straight 1000 receiving yard seasons, yet he is more known for is post celebration antics or famous drop against Pittsburg Steelers in 2010. Part of this is because he brought it on himself, but his career has warranted him more respect as a NFL receiver then he has earned. He is now in the ideal situation, has matured (no incidents since 2011), and can make his name known for helping the 49ers reach a Super Bowl, as he has the ability to do just that.
Last year, Johnson had 52 catches for a less-than impressive 597 yards and three touchdowns. While not bad, for a player who was accustomed to racking up 1,000 yard seasons, it was a significant drop. The decline though is rather easily explained. He missed four games while dealing with both the unexpected loss of his mother and injuries. A distracted, less than 100 percent Johnson in 12 games last year put up numbers that would have tied him for second on the 49ers with Vernon Davis in catches and third on the team in touchdowns. With the idea of Johnson to come in as the team’s third option, he is clearly capable of filling this role, and if anything may be overqualified.
49ers Have A New Secret Weapon
What makes the addition of Johnson so exciting though, is that outside of the production, it’s his skill set that makes him a perfect fit in this offense. He can flat out fly and is an engaged blocker (see preseason game against Baltimore Ravens). The 49ers’ top two receiving options now, Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin, are both possession receivers, neither whom have blazing speed. The addition of Johnson and this new element of speed changes the way defenses will have to play them. It gives San Francisco an extra pawn against opposing defensive backs, specifically division rival Seattle.
If there is one weakness of the Seattle Legion of Boom its speed. They are tough and physical, but can be beat vertically. Richard Sherman and crew dominated the 49ers receivers as Boldin and Crabtree play right into their strengths. Johnson takes away the luxury Seattle and other defenders had a year ago to sit on the underneath routes. This will force a more honest look from defenses who will have to respect the arm of Colin Kaepernick, who finally has a player to stretch the field and showcase the cannon also known as his right arm.
Another Viable Option
With all he brings to the table, it’s hard to imagine how having Stevie Johnson on the field does not make the 49ers passing attack far more formidable. If nothing else, it will even out the lopsided pass distribution that has plagued the San Francisco passing game the past two seasons.
In 2012, Crabtree led the team with 85 receptions; the next highest was Mario Manningham with 42. Last year Boldin was the team leader with 85 catches, and Vernon Davis was a distant second with 52. While injuries can help explain such skewed numbers, that’s why the team needs a player like Johnson. Johnson has been his team’s leading receiver multiple times, so in the unforeseen event on an injury, there is no longer a concern as to who can step in. The depth that was a problem a year ago is now a thing of the past.
With Crabtree, Boldin and Davis available, Kaepernick will still look to his favorite targets, but Johnson will get his looks and his presence on the field will go a long way in helping the passing game expand its options on a down to down basis.
49ers Tweek Roster to Keep Up With Pass Happy League
The 49ers’ old school approach of smash mouth football is still going to be their staple, but the new wave of the NFL is high powered passing attacks, and Stevie Johnson will help keep the team current with the times. The 49ers have a lot of depth and talented players fighting for playing time at the wide receiver position, but none outside of Boldin and Crabtree are on the level of Johnson. He has shown the talent to be a teams go to guy, has a lot to prove and will be doing it in front of his friends and family.
Only time and his play on the field will tell how successful Johnson will be in San Francisco, but with his speed and abilities thrown into the mix with an already dangerous core of receivers, there is no way the 49ers finish ranked behind 29 other teams this season flinging the ball, and a lot of it will have to do with Stevie Johnson.
Jerrell Richardson is a Bay Area native who due to a college career at San Diego State University has grown an appreciation for all things sports related in California. His heart will always remain in San Francisco though where he currently resides and covers everything from the San Francisco 49ers and Giants to the San Jose Sharks and California Bears Baseball team. Jerrell is a freelance writer covering all things NFL. His work can be found on Examiner.com.