NFC West: Eric Johnson

NFC West teams value their tight ends.

The division has drafted seven in the first three rounds since 2006, when the San Francisco 49ers made Vernon Davis the sixth overall choice. The other seven divisions have drafted 24 in the first three rounds over the same period.

Davis has subsequently become a Pro Bowl selection, but he needed time, seasoning and some tough love from former coach Mike Singletary to get his career on the right track.

The subject came to mind Tuesday upon listening to the latest podcast from Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. Williamson, a former coach at Pitt and scout for the Cleveland Browns, explained why tight ends are increasingly difficult to evaluate coming out of college.

While NFL teams expect tight ends to know blocking schemes and pass routes, limitations on college staffing prevent even top programs from dedicating significant resources to coaching the position.

"When I was at Pitt, our tight ends coach was also our special-teams coach," Williamson said. "Rarely are you sitting there with a true tight ends coach and getting coached like other positions do."

As a result, rookie tight ends face steep learning curves while also adjusting to far more physical defensive linemen than the ones they've blocked in college.

Back to the NFC West. The St. Louis Rams recently used a second-round choice for tight end Lance Kendricks. The Arizona Cardinals used a third-rounder for Rob Housler, another tight end. Both enter the NFL amid high expectations, but recent history provides needed perspective.

Jeremy Shockey, John Carlson and Jermaine Gresham are the only tight ends since 2000 to reach 50 receptions in their first NFL seasons. Wide receivers also face difficult NFL adjustments; 18 of them have reached 50 receptions as first-year players since 2000. By my count, teams have drafted 391 receivers and 188 tight ends during that time.

The chart breaks out first-year stats for tight ends since 2000, based on info from Pro Football Reference.


Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch checks in with former longtime Rams equipment manager Todd Hewitt, who claims coach Steve Spagnuolo fired him for no good reason. Hewitt: "He is a hard person to deal with. He's just very hands-on. Controlling. It's an everything-has-to-go-through-him kind of deal." Spagnuolo declined comment, but this move looks like yet another example of the Rams' leadership replacing the old guard with its own people. Was the move justified? That is difficult to know without hearing from the Rams. Disgruntled former employees generally aren't going to tell the full story. On the surface, however, Hewitt was a longtime employee who loved his job and seemed to be well-liked. Thomas: "The day he was fired, Hewitt said offensive guard Jacob Bell and linebackers James Laurinaitis and David Vobora asked him to come to Mexico with them on a trip -- they'd pick up the tab. Hewitt was grateful but declined the offer. He has heard from all kinds of players -- past and present -- from Kurt Warner and Marshall Faulk, to Roman Gabriel and Jack Youngblood, to Jackson and Chris Long, since he was fired."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com addresses whether Kevin Kolb or Carson Palmer is more likely to be under center for the 49ers next season. Maiocco: "There is a better chance that Kolb, rather than Palmer, will be the 49ers' quarterback in 2011. After all, Philadelphia is entertaining offers for Kolb, while stubborn Bengals president Mike Brown appears unlikely to cave into Palmer's trade demand. How the organization addresses the quarterback position during the draft will determine the team's approach to adding a veteran to the mix when there is a new collective bargaining agreement." The 49ers would not give up their first-round choice for Kolb, in my view.

Eric Branch of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat looks at the 49ers' best late-round draft choices since 2000. On Eric Johnson: "Johnson played in just 71 games over seven seasons due to a variety of injuries, but he was productive when upright. In 2004, he led the Niners with 82 catches, the most by a tight end in franchise history. Of the 13 tight ends selected in the 2001 draft, Johnson (240 catches, 2,178 yards) ranks third in career catches and yards behind the first two taken -- first-rounder Todd Heap and second-rounder Alge Crumpler. By the way, the next two tight ends drafted after Heap and Crumpler were third-rounders Sean Brewer and Shad Meier. Or is it Sean Meier and Shad Brewer?"

Also from Branch: the second part of his installment on the 49ers' best late-round choices since 2000. On Eric Heitmann: "The reliable and consistent Heitmann became the first 49ers rookie offensive lineman to start a game in 15 years when he debuted in 2002 and has since become a three-time winner of the Bobb McKittrick Award, the top honor given to a Niners offensive lineman. His future appears uncertain after a broken leg and neck injury wiped out his 2010 season, but he’s already logged 114 starts. That’s a nice investment on the 239th player selected in a draft."

Clare Farnsworth of seahawks.com checks in with Cortez Kennedy for his latest piece on the 35th anniversary team. Farnsworth explains how Kennedy came to be known as "Big Dawg" among teammates. As former teammate Jeff Bryant put it: "When you go hunting, you want to take the big dog. That’s Tez. He’s our ‘Big Dawg.’"

Also from Farnsworth: Dennis Erickson and others speak to Kennedy's dominance. Erickson: "Cortez might’ve been as dominant a defensive tackle that’s ever played. He was dominant when I had him in Seattle in the four years I was there, and he was dominant before I got there. I don’t know if you can see a defensive tackle who dominated a game like he did when he was with the Seahawks."

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt left Wednesday to attend workouts at Clemson and North Carolina. That explains why Whisenhunt wasn't in attendance at Jake Locker's pro day.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says Buffalo could be the key team in determining whether the Cardinals get a crack at Texas A&M pass-rusher Von Miller. Urban: "Buffalo could use a QB, but Chan Gailey seems to want defense, so Miller has been a popular possibility for a team that uses the 3-4 and needs a pass rush. If the Cards want Miller, it seems the Bills will be the key. The Bengals figure to go offense, whether a QB or WR. The Cards, who have hinted many times they aren’t necessarily looking QB early, still don’t seem to make sense with a pick like that. Here’s the question, assuming Miller is gone: Could you make Da'Quan Bowers work in your defense? Is Patrick Peterson good enough?"

Also from Urban: a chat transcript in which he sizes up veteran quarterbacks Marc Bulger and Kyle Orton as possibilities for Arizona. Urban: "I think Bulger does fit this offense, and he wouldn't cost a draft pick like Orton would. I don't know exactly how they feel about Orton, although I am sure that possibility has been considered."

By the decade: NFC West tight ends

January, 22, 2010
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The 49ers' Vernon Davis stood above all other NFC West tight ends during the first decade of the 2000s.

Davis led all tight ends in receiving yards and touchdowns, counting only stats compiled while players were with teams in the division. Davis also proved to be an outstanding blocker.

Only fellow 49ers tight end Eric Johnson, who played for the team from 2001 to 2006, had more receptions during the decade among NFC West tight ends. Johnson had nine more catches, but Davis had 15 more touchdowns.

I compiled the stats by combining team-specific data from Pro Football Reference (Rams, 49ers, Seahawks and Cardinals). Johnson (192) led 49ers tight ends in receptions during the decade. Freddie Jones (148) was the only Cardinals tight end with more than 48 receptions. Itula Mili (158) and Randy McMichael (84) led the Seahawks and Rams, respectively.

Around the NFC West: 49ers regress

December, 7, 2009
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Ray Ratto of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers are lost after their latest defeat. Ratto: "In losing to Seattle, 20-17, on Olindo Mare's game-closing 30-yard field goal, the 49ers not only turned their postseason chances from long to next year, but they also went from being a work in progress to one in stasis because they have lost what trust they had in themselves beyond the baseline level of hard work and desire to compete."

John Crumpacker of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers' Alex Smith has played better than his 2-4 starting record would suggest.

Also from Crumpacker: Vernon Davis was good and bad against the Seahawks. Crumpacker: "By any measure, though, Davis is having a career year with highs in receptions (63), yards (781) and touchdown receptions. One more productive game and he should pass Eric Johnson for the most receiving yards by a 49ers tight end in a single season. Johnson had 825 yards in 2004."

Matt Maiocco of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says "widespread faulty play" spoiled the 49ers' most important game of the season.

Also from Maiocco: Seahawks coach Jim Mora liked how the 49ers ran their offense. Mora: "Interestingly enough, they didn’t attempt to run the ball. I think they only had four rushing attempts in the first half. It wasn’t a whole lot different in the second half."

Also from Maiocco: a 49ers report card featuring "F" grades for the coaching staff and running backs. Maiocco: "The 49ers spent a timeout before the first play from scrimmage because they were disorganized. Why even try trickery on a punt return in 35-degree weather? This was not a good game for the staff."

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat pulls no punches on the 49ers. Cohn: "This is the face of losing. It is Mike Singletary appearing for his postgame press conference so early the writers aren’t ready for him. It is Singletary sniffing from a cold, his nostrils red, Singletary saying the game was there for the taking, but ... It is Singletary marinating in a million 'buts' and 'what-ifs.' It is Singletary trying to explain the very first play of the game — an unprecedented play, an unheard of play in its total badness. The 49ers called their first timeout before the Seahawks ever snapped the ball because the coaches couldn’t get their defense set. This was how the Niners prepared for this make-or-break game -- they had to call a timeout after six seconds, total chaos."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers' biggest mistake was giving Matt Hasselbeck one more chance to win the game Sunday.

Also from Barrows: Smith held up his end.

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says the 49ers' defeat means all aspects of the organization must come under scrutiny. Kawakami: "They are 5-7. They are disappearing from the NFC playoff race. And they were not good enough to beat a soft Seahawks team in a game the 49ers knew they had to win. They are falling short. There is no other way to judge it. They are not a disaster, but they are just about done for '09, anyway."

Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News says Smith and Davis didn't much care about the personal milestones they achieved in defeat.

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Former Rams receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce commanded spots on my NFC West all-decade team after leading one of the most-dynamic offenses in NFL history.

Larry Fitzgerald also seemed worthy after posting three 1,400-yard seasons and staking the Cardinals into a late lead with a dramatic 64-yard touchdown reception in Super Bowl XLIII.

With at least three worthy candidates for two spots -- and with receivers Anquan Boldin, Bobby Engram and Terrell Owens more deserving than any of the available tight ends -- something had to give.

"I'm hard pressed to come up with [a tight end] better than Vernon Davis," wrote regular blog contributor Mind of no mind. "But if there is nobody better, then maybe we should drop the TE from the team and go with 3 WR with Bruce."

Done deal.

Holt, Bruce and Fitzgerald became the receivers. That made more sense than adding Davis, Eric Johnson, Jerramy Stevens, Itula Mili or some other relatively unaccomplished tight end to the squad.

Such was the give and take as I sifted through nominations left on the blog and on my Facebook page. One request I couldn't quite accommodate: finding a spot for the legendary Kim Il Zong, a ka The Zonger.

A position-by position look at my NFC West all-decade team follows. Thanks to Adam from Mesa, Ariz., for getting the conversation started (download his suggested team here).

(Read full post)

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