NFC West: Stevie Johnson
It's just that with Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin already on the roster, Johnson being Colin Kaepernick's go-to guy was not the team's motive when it shipped a conditional fourth-round pick in the 2015 draft to the Buffalo Bills for him.
“I'm pretty sure everybody already knows the bulk of it will be with Crab and Boldin,” Johnson said Wednesday. “So we're just fitting in right after them.”
In fact, to make his case more appealing, Johnson has worked at all three receiver spots in camp.
“[I'm] not necessarily thinking who's going to be out there in certain personnel [groups],” he said, “just, whenever you get your opportunity, let's make it work. Because that's what we're all thinking. We have a lot of great players, a lot of good players that can make plays.
“Everybody can't be on the field at once. So there's going to be times when you're called upon and just, hopefully, you show up.”
That's exactly what Johnson, a seventh-round draft choice of the Bills out of Kentucky in 2008, did with three straight 1,000-yard receiving seasons from 2010 to 2012. That's something not even Hall of Famer Andre Reed did in 15 years with the Bills.
Johnson averaged 79 catches, 1,041 yards and eight TD catches in those years, before missing four games last season and finishing with 52 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns.
“I think we definitely understand how he can fit in," 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman said of Johnson. “I really believe ... that we just need to keep working to develop the level of chemistry that we want.
“Really happy to have Stevie and I think he'll bring a lot to the table. Have a good feel for his skill set. I love his energy out there and just us as a unit need to continue to work every day to develop that chemistry.”
A few highlights, then, of the 49ers' final public practice.
- Wide receiver Michael Crabtree was still not in attendance, as he was in Texas the day before for the birth of his son Michael III.
- Even before the public practice was cut short, the poor condition of the field was obvious, from divots flying out when players made cuts to the discolored spots in the middle of the field. And if Bruce Ellington tweaking his right ankle in a one-on-one drill with cornerback Chris Culliver was not proof enough, then Stevie Johnson taking a spill untouched on an out pattern at the goal line and jerking his left leg sealed it.
- Phil Dawson, one of the more accurate kickers in NFL history, continued to work on his craft after missing a pair of field goals in Sunday’s 34-0 exhibition loss to the Denver Broncos by kicking numerous field goals. If Andy Lee was not holding, then Dawson had a metal holder in his place so he could work solo.
- Ellington, LaMichael James and veteran Anquan Boldin were the three players fielding punts.
- Cornerback Tramaine Brock picked off McLeod Bethel-Thompson on a pass intended for David Reed on the right sideline and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown.
Johnson was limited in the offseason by a minor injury. He looked in mid-season form Thursday.
Johnson could be a huge key for the 49ers as Kaepernick tries to take their offense to the next level in 2014. Johnson is set to be the No. 3 receiver behind Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree. We recently looked how Johnson's addition could change the 49ers' offense.
No matter what Johnson's effect will be on this offense, this receiver group is much deeper in 2014. And the depth starts with Johnson. That is already obvious.
Because of heavy competition elsewhere, the 49ers will likely only carry two quarterbacks. They finished last season that way. The competition will be to see if undrafted rookie Kory Faulkner can take McLeod Bethel-Thompson's spot on the practice squad.
RUNNING BACKS (5)
The fact that the 49ers drafted Hyde in the second round and Lattimore is healthy means some tough decisions will have to be made. Hunter is too valuable to let go. That means 2012 second-round pick LaMichael James will have difficulty making the roster.
WIDE RECEIVERS (6)
The 49ers are so much deeper here this year than last. That means they will likely have to keep six receivers. Lloyd may look good and Patton has too much potential to give up on. That means it could be tough for Kassim Osgood to make it even though he is a special teams cog.
TIGHT ENDS (3)
If Davis ends his holdout, I can't see the 49ers keeping more than three tight ends because of the glut at receiver. Unless Garrett Celek has a big camp, he may be in trouble. Carrier intrigues the 49ers because of his size and speed.
OFFENSIVE LINE (8)
- Joe Staley
- Anthony Davis
- Alex Boone
- Mike Iupati
- Daniel Kilgore
- Marcus Martin
- Jonathan Martin
- Joe Looney
Assuming Boone ends his holdout, this is a pretty nice group of eight players. It's improved from last year. A solid veteran like Adam Snyder and a promising youngster like Ryan Seymour will have trouble making the team.
DEFENSIVE LINE (9)
- Justin Smith
- Ray McDonald
- Glenn Dorsey
- Tank Carradine
- Tony Jerod-Eddie
- Quinton Dial
- Ian Williams
- Kaleb Ramsey
This is another power spot. It's deep. Players like Jerod-Eddie and Dial are too valuable to cut. Ramsey has looked good and I have a hunch the 49ers may like him too much to expose him to the waiver wire. That means Demarcus Dobbs could be in trouble.
Most teams carry six linebackers but the 49ers are stacked here, especially with NaVorro Bowman out for about half the season. Because fifth-round pick Lynch is promising he should make the roster. Dan Skuta is an excellent player, but there might not be any room for him. I could see him being one of those later-summer Trent Baalke trade specials because he has value.
This unit is in flux, but I see Johnson making it. Don't be surprised if there is some in-camp jockeying as the 49ers look for the best mix.
Ward, the 49ers' first-round pick, will play nickel cornerback as a rookie, but projects long term as a safety. Ventrone and Spillman should stick because they are great on special teams. Craig Dahl could be in trouble.
This group is set and it's excellent.
NFL Nation's Bill Williamson examines the three biggest issues facing the San Francisco 49ers heading into training camp.
The holdouts: The 49ers, fresh off three straight trips to the NFC title game and seemingly poised for another long postseason run, have the weathered many storms this offseason.
Yes, there are some issues that still linger. The 49ers do not know if tight end Vernon Davis and/or guard Alex Boone will continue their holdouts into training camp.
Both players stayed away from voluntary workouts, and then became official holdouts when they did not report to mandatory minicamp last month.
Both Davis and Boone want a new deal. There are indications Boone will stay away until he gets a new contract. Davis has wavered, but he could also miss a chunk of camp.
Both players are key to the offense and would be missed. The 49ers would have to rely on youth at both spots if the holdouts linger. Vance McDonald would play for Davis and Joe Looney would play for Boone. Neither player is the caliber of the player they’d replace.
Aldon Smith: The 49ers head to training camp not completely sure of the future of the standout pass-rusher. The 49ers are set to start training camp next Wednesday. Two days later, Smith is set to be sentenced for pleading no contest to three felony gun charges. He could face some jail time.
He could also be facing an NFL suspension. If Smith is out, the 49ers will need to find some more pass-rush help, and that’s what training camp will be for. Dan Skuta and Corey Lemonier helped the 49ers go 5-0 last season when Smith was in a treatment center. The team also drafted Aaron Lynch in the fifth round. If these players show a pass-rush burst in camp, that will make the 49ers feel better about the prospect of playing a long chunk without Smith.
New firepower: The 49ers have big potential on offense. Training camp and the preseason will be a time for the unit to gel and figure out the best approach to use all of the talent. The receiving crew is beefed up with addition of Stevie Johnson, through a trade with Buffalo, veteran Brandon Lloyd and fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington.
The depth of this season’s receiving group is light years ahead of last year’s unit. The thought of Johnson being the No. 3 receiver behind Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree is silly. Ellington, a South Carolina product, gives the 49ers an element they missed last season -- a burner who can take the top of the defense.
At running back -- the heart of the 49ers’ offense is still the ground attack -- Frank Gore will have second-round pick Carlos Hyde and Marcus Lattimore, who appears to be healthy after missing last season while recovering from a 2012 torn ACL.
Hyde has looked great as a runner and receiver in the offseason. The second-round pick from Ohio State has a chance to make a big impact.
All of these new weapons of course, should help the overall game of quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who is entering his second full season as a starter.
The 49ers have big capabilities on offense, but the real work begins now.
- ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that Kaepernick specifically requested his deal allow the 49ers flexibility to negotiate extensions with other players. Schefter reported that Kaepernick’s signing bonus was only $12 million, which is at least half of the usual signing bonuses that come with big quarterback deals. Kaepernick mentioned at his news conference Wednesday that the deal will be designed to allow the 49ers to keep signing key players.
- Receiver Michael Crabtree and guard Mike Iupati are free agents after the 2014 season. Tight end Vernon Davis and guard Alex Boone are staying away from the team in the voluntary portion of the offseason because they want new contracts. Not everyone will get paid, but I think the 49ers will be able to find some money. I’d think Crabtree becomes the next priority. Still, it may not be easy for the team to sign an extension with him before next offseason. But with Kaepernick secured, the franchise tag will be open for Crabtree or Iupati next winter. I’d think Crabtree would be the top candidate to be tagged.Crabtree
- Expect to see a relaxed Kaepernick this season. Getting this deal done before training camp takes away the pressure of him having to try to earn the deal during the season and having to talk about it with the media on a regular basis. If the contract wasn’t completed, Kaepernick’s future would be a topic after every 49ers loss in 2014. That takes away a major potential distraction.
- Kaepernick’s situation was watched closely by other agents. Dating back to last season, I had multiple agents tell me they thought this situation could get ugly and that Kaepernick and his agents would have difficulty with this deal. As it turns out, the deal got done early.
- This deal may look like a bargain in six months. The 49ers added receiver Stevie Johnson in a trade and running back Carlos Hyde in the draft. The 49ers have huge weapons on offense. Kaepernick is poised for a monster season. Second-year tight end Vance McDonald mentioned Tuesday that Kaepernick has been a bigger leader this offseason than he was last season. The 49ers bought a rising stock.
- Authorities in Miami want to soon finish an investigation in which Kaepernick is part of a "suspicious incident.” Kaepernick has strongly denied wrongdoing and the 49ers have supported him. Cleary, they don’t expect anything to come of it.
- It was a classy move by Kaepernick to thank former 49ers starting quarterback Alex Smith for mentoring him early in his career.
- It doesn’t sound like Kaepernick is ready to go on a big spending spree now that he is officially rich. “I think the three most expensive things I own are my TV, my bed and my couch. I’m going to keep it that way for a while,” he said.
- Kaepernick is well respected by his teammates. That showed Wednesday. Several 49ers tweeted their congratulations to their quarterback for the big deal.
Willis said the change may stick for the season. It is just a subtle change and he is comfortable there because he has played in the spot before. Willis said it is still strange being on the field without his fellow inside-linebacker star Bowman.
In other 49ers' notes:
- Star tight end Vernon Davis and standout guard Alex Boone continued to stay away from the voluntary session as they have all offseason. They are both unhappy with their contract. Neither player will be considered a holdout until they miss the June 17-19 mandatory minicamp. Second-year tight end Vance McDonald is starting at tight end with Davis gone. McDonald appreciates the extra reps, but admitted this about Davis: "I miss the dude." Joe Looney is working in Boone's right guard spot.
- The 49ers cut guard Al Netter to make room for special teamer Blake Costanzo on the 90-man roster.
- Veteran defensive end Justin Smith and running back Frank Gore were onlookers during the meat of the workout. Like Gore, cornerback Chris Culliver participated in early warm-ups and the did not participate in team drills.
- The 49ers named Dr. Fergus Connolly director of elite performance. Connolly will work intimately with football operations to develop innovative sports and performance science practices geared towards player welfare and performance optimization. He spent the last three years as a performance consultant to teams in the NFL, NBA, English Premier League and professional rugby.
- Because several receivers were out for various reasons, reserve quarterback Josh Johnson played receiver in some drills. And he didn't look too bad. But don't expect him to change positions. It's just an emergency deal.
- Among the banged up receivers are Steve Johnson (hamstring) and Quinton Patton (foot). Both injures are considered minor at this point. Like he did last week, Brandon Lloyd had a strong day. Chuck Jacobs, who spent last season in the practice squad, was very active Tuesday.
- The quarterback whisperer, 49ers' head coach Jim Harbaugh, spent some one-on-one time with undrafted rookie quarterback Kory Faulkner early in Tuesday's practice.
By almost everyone’s estimation, the rough and rugged NFC West was the best division in the NFL in 2013. It had the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks, two teams in the NFC Championship Game (Seattle and the San Francisco 49ers) and another 10-game winner in the Arizona Cardinals. The St. Louis Rams were 7-9 but likely would have had a winning season in any other division.
And now? Other than adding Godzilla and three superheroes to the four teams, they could not get much better. It looks like the big boys on the NFC block will remain out west.
Most experts believe the Rams had one of the best drafts in the NFL, adding Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson and Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, giving St. Louis four first-round picks on what is arguably the best defensive line in football.
The 49ers had 12 draft picks, including seven in the first four rounds, and made a trade during the draft for talented Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson.
The Cardinals signed gigantic left tackle Jared Veldheer and blazing kick returner Ted Ginn in free agency. They also added a vicious hitter, Washington State safety Deone Bucannon, with their first draft pick.
As always happens with Super Bowl champs, the Seahawks lost a few key players to free agency, but they kept the man they really wanted to keep in defensive end Michael Bennett and locked up "Legion of Boom" stars Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman to long-term deals.
Believe it or not, the best division in the NFL just got better.
As usual, the Seahawks drafted some players other teams would have taken later, if at all. Should people question their choices, or have they earned the benefit of the doubt?
Terry Blount: Have we learned nothing from the past? Questioning Seattle's draft strategy, along with undrafted signees, now seems a little foolish. Shall I name a few who stand out that other teams passed up or the experts questioned? Sherman, Russell Wilson, Doug Baldwin and Malcolm Smith, for starters. The Seahawks bring in players with specific traits -- unusual athleticism, driving competitiveness and obvious intelligence. Where those players rank on another team's draft board means nothing to them. And at first glance from rookie camp, they found some winners in receivers Paul Richardson and Kevin Norwood, along with defensive end Cassius Marsh.
Josh Weinfuss: A little leeway should be given to the Seahawks because, first, they are the reigning NFL champions, and second, their personnel department has been able to piece together a pretty good roster with players who were not highly rated. With that being said, good will should only go so far. Sometimes a general manager and coach think they have the secret recipe and get cocky about their ability to find talent. When that happens, bad decisions are made. Obviously, the Seahawks have a reputation for picking good players, but they won't be right every time. Every team has an off draft and picks who don't pan out. It is also too early for us to know if some of their "rogue" picks will do anything. Their picks should definitely be questioned until they have a chance to show us their stuff.
Bill Williamson: The glue to the Seahawks is general manager John Schneider. Yes, coach Pete Carroll is a tremendous fit for the franchise and is a big part of the team's success. But Schneider is the architect of this franchise. He built this roster. There is little doubting the way he has drafted. Look at the core of the team -- they were all great value choices by Schneider. The tie goes to Schneider. You can doubt him if you choose, but it would be a lousy idea. Expect these Seattle rookies to develop into players. Schneider always wins.
@TerryBlountESPN No. People questioned Russell Wilson immediately after 2012 draft. We all know how that turned out! Takes time.- Tina Metcalf (@girlinseattle) May 27, 2014
Do the additions of Johnson and Carlos Hyde give the 49ers the most dangerous offense in the division?
Blount: Both players will help, but the real key for the 49ers is quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Having enough weapons wasn't really the problem. Using them effectively on a consistent basis and cutting down on mistakes is the issue. Kaepernick's extraordinary talent is unquestioned. But can he be the same type of team leader that Wilson is and make the big play in the most difficult moments? He couldn't do it last year in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game. If he shows he can do that consistently when the big game is on the line, watch out.
Weinfuss: It is certainly looking like the 49ers have one of the most dangerous offenses in the division, if not the most dangerous. San Francisco has the right pieces at every position, from quarterback to running back to wide receiver to tight end. But the first question that came to mind when going through San Francisco's offensive depth chart is this: Will one football be enough to go around? This might turn into a case of the 49ers being better on paper than they are on the field, which has happened many times throughout the NFL. The Cardinals bolstered their skill positions during the offseason, giving themselves a lot of talent at wide receiver and tight end to complement two young running backs and a veteran quarterback who finds ways to win. A team can have all the ammunition in the world, but if the coach doesn't know how to use it, it will be stockpiled for naught.
Williamson: I think so. There is nothing missing from this offense. We saw how dynamic it can be when Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles last December. Put Crabtree, the clutch Anquan Boldin and Johnson together and that is a great veteran group of receivers. Someone is always going to be open. Rookie Bruce Ellington was added to give the 49ers the ability to take the top off of defenses, an aspect they didn't possess last season. We didn't even mention Davis at tight end. Really, how is this offense going to be stopped? Kaepernick looked like a completely different quarterback when Crabtree played last season. Kaepernick with all of these weapons? Oh, and we didn't even mention the bread and butter of the 49ers' offense -- the running game. Hyde, Gore and a healthy Marcus Lattimore? How do you defend this group?
@BWilliamsonESPN sure does...how can you spy Kap now with 3 legit wrs + VD...Hyde taking on a 7 man front with our bulldozing line. #1- CDM (@CDM49er) May 14, 2014
After a narrow miss last season, have the Cardinals made enough of the right moves to get into the playoffs?
Blount: I don't think they needed to make many moves to reach the playoffs. Record-wise, they were a playoff team last season, but a victim of circumstances in the playoff structure. So the real question is can the Cardinals catch Seattle and/or San Francisco? And my answer is yes, especially the 49ers. Quarterback Carson Palmer will be better after having a full season in the Arizona offense. Bruce Arians might be the most underrated coach in the NFL. The team clearly is on the rise, while San Francisco's offseason turmoil could come back to bite it.
Weinfuss: The Cardinals have made enough moves to make the playoffs this season. They missed the postseason a year ago by a game, which might have been different if Arizona had been stocked with a better kick returner, left tackle, second cornerback and safety. The Cards addressed those issues in the offseason, which should make them better in 2014. Adding left tackle Veldheer to anchor the offensive line should ease Arians' concerns about Palmer's blind side. One thing Ginn has shown throughout his career is that he can return kicks with the best. But the biggest difference for the Cards will be their improved secondary. Signing talented veteran Cromartie gives the Cardinals two lockdown cornerbacks (along with Patrick Peterson) and drafting Bucannon gave Arizona an instant upgrade against tight ends and big receivers -- which there are plenty of in NFC West.
Williamson: I really like how well the Cardinals are coached. I think Arians is on to something. His players seem to respond to him. So the program will continue to rise under Arians. Also, I love the defense; it is nasty, aggressive and ball-hawking. Add great defense and a well-respected coaching staff and a team is going to win a lot of games. I think the bottom line with the Cardinals is quarterback play. Palmer had his moments last season, but I'm not a big believer in him. I think he will cost the Cardinals at some point. Maybe this is a playoff team, but I think the Cardinals are a couple of steps behind the Seahawks and the 49ers. The deficit starts at quarterback.
@joshweinfuss no. if o-line depth isn't addressed, look out for consistent pressure off the right side and more INTs from cardiac carson- Sean Kirchheimer (@stkirch) May 21, 2014
The Rams decided not to draft help at wide receiver and waited until the sixth round to add a young quarterback. Will their offense score enough to make up ground in the NFC West?
Blount: Sure, it would have helped to add a top receiver, but is there a bigger unknown in the entire division than Sam Bradford? What the Rams, and everyone else, have to find out is whether Bradford is an elite quarterback. Frankly, I have my doubts, but he did play well last season before his injury. Bradford's situation is much different than that of Kaepernick, who is as gifted a player physically as you will ever see. In Bradford's case, it's hard to know how good he really is or can be, because he hasn't had top talent around him. And it doesn't help that he has to play six games against three of the of the best defenses in the NFL. It's time for Bradford to step up, no matter whom he is throwing the ball to each week.
Weinfuss: The depth of the NFC West makes this the toughest question of the four. The Rams' additions weren't significant improvements to their offense, but will help. Bradford will come back with a vengeance and try to light up the scoreboard. He will have a talented group of receivers, but can they score enough to close the gap from the bottom of the West? Not sure that can happen. Rookie Robinson will take his lumps and bruises and might not come into his own until the second half of the season, so the Rams have to be hoping it's not too late by then. Points will be at a premium in the West, especially considering how good the three other defenses are, so the Rams will have to be even better than expected to make up ground, and I'm not sure they are ready for that just yet.
Williamson: Points scored? Who needs points with that defense. Man, the Rams' defense is getting silly good. Adding Donald to that defensive front should have been banned. It's simply unfair. The Rams are not going to allow many points this season. So the offense won't have to be overly dynamic. With that said, I am not a big Bradford fan. I don't think he is the answer. Until the Rams upgrade at quarterback, I don't think they will reach their full potential or be able to hang in the division race. But they will dangerous every week because of the defense.
With free agency and the draft in the rearview mirror and training camp just a couple of months away, we assess the San Francisco 49ers' offseason moves.
Riskiest move: Change in the secondary. The 49ers will have three new starters in the secondary after seeing safety Donte Whitner and cornerback Tarell Brown leave in free agency and after cutting Carlos Rogers. Whitner was the only one the 49ers had interest in keeping, but he was too pricey. The 49ers made a nice move of bringing in a comparable player -- safety Antoine Bethea from the Colts. Chris Culliver, who was injured in 2013, and first-round pick Jimmie Ward will play in the nickel. I think these changes should work well, especially since the meat of the 49ers' defense is the front seven. But when there are such wholesale changes, it's a question mark.
Most surprising move: Making 12 draft picks. The 49ers entered the draft with 11 picks, but with few needs. Yet the 49ers ended up with 12, which was tied for most in the NFL. I don't think more than seven or eight of the draft picks have a chance to make this stacked roster. Of course, the 49ers took a few injured players to stash, which only helps the entire program. It's difficult to imagine a deeper team than San Francisco in the league.
Receiver depth: I cannot emphasize this enough -- it's stunning how much depth the 49ers now have at receiver when compared to last season. With Michael Crabtree hurt for much of the year, the 49ers received virtually no production from the position other than from Boldin. Now, the 49ers are loaded at with Boldin, Crabtree, Johnson, second-year player Quinton Patton (who missed much of the season with a broken foot) and speedy fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington. This is the biggest difference on the team.
One team desperately needed it – the Jacksonville Jaguars. The other team that Kiper gave the top grade to was the San Francisco 49ers. Well, that’s just piling on. The 49ers, who also traded for standout receiver Stevie Johnson during the draft, entered the draft with perhaps the NFL’s finest roster. Well, it got a lot better.
Here is some of Kiper’s reasoning for giving the 49ers such a great grade: The Niners just got so many good players. Safety Jimmie Ward will cover, attack the line of scrimmage, and will play fast and fearless. If you call that a reach, remember that Arizona had taken Deone Bucannon at No. 27, so there were already three safeties off the board (not that Bucannon and Ward are that similar) and the 49ers knew if they didn't nab Ward there, they had no chance later. They got the No. 1 RB in the draft at No. 57. Frank Gore has a lot of miles on the odometer, LaMichael James may not be there long, and if Marcus Lattimore is your No. 1, you better have a 1-A. Carlos Hyde made sense and, again, he's the top RB in the draft. Marcus Martin is a future starter at center; Chris Borland gives immediate depth at linebacker and has the experience to play now. Brandon Thomas is another 49ers redshirt, but could be a star guard when he comes back (he hurt his knee this spring, but would have gone in Round 2 otherwise). Bruce Ellington isn't a far cry from Brandin Cooks, but he went 86 picks later. It goes on and on. Dontae Johnson is solid and Aaron Lynch has developmental promise. I even like the pick at No. 245 -- Trey Millard is the top fullback in the draft and was another guy who dropped on some boards after a knee injury. What I like about this draft is the 49ers are in a championship window, and they still managed to balance both the need for immediate help and also got a lot of talent for the future.
What stood out to me about the 49ers’ draft is that they scored so many players who can make an impact, but were available lower than projected. Those players include Hyde, Martin, Borland and Ellington. Truly, the rich got richer.
Meanwhile, in an Insider piece, Todd McShay really likes two 49ers’ picks a lot.
Events did not unfold that way but the 49ers receiving crew is now loaded.
After trading a conditional 2015 fourth-round pick to Buffalo for veteran Stevie Johnson on Friday, the 49ers took South Carolina speedster Bruce Ellington with the sixth pick of the fourth round.
Just as running back Carlos Hyde, center Marcus Martin and linebacker Chris Borland were Friday, Ellington was considered a high value choice. Some scouts thought he’d go in the second round.
Ellington gives the 49ers blazing speed from a receiver, the one thing they appeared to be lacking.
With Johnson, Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, the 49ers have plenty of veterans who will get open. Now, they can design packages to leverage Ellington’s speed. Second-year receiver Quinton Patton also came on strong late in the season.
It now appears highly unlikely Brandon Lloyd, who signed earlier this offseason with a team-friendly deal, will make the team. He doesn’t play special teams. If the team keeps six receivers, special teams ace Kassim Osgood should stick.
The Ellington pick could also affect running back LaMichael James. Ellington can return kicks and punts, the main ability James offered. General manager Trent Baalke reiterated Friday night that the team wanted to keep James, but Ellington's selection may have changed that situation.
But once the second day screeched to a stop, some clarity was achieved: The 49ers’ offense has gotten a lot more powerful.
After shocking the league by taking hard-hitting safety Jimmie Ward out of Northern Illinois at No. 30 to play nickel cornerback (their biggest need), the 49ers acquired veteran receiver Stevie Johnson from Buffalo in the hours before the draft. That move clearly warmed up general manager Trent Baalke. After making three trades in the second round, Baalke landed one of the premier skill-position players available in the second round in Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde.
In all, Baalke made four trades Friday and acquired Johnson from Buffalo for a conditional fourth-round pick. Baalke’s moves Friday night netted the 49ers a fourth-round pick from Denver, so they essentially got Johnson for free.
The 49ers added Johnson and Hyde to an offense that seemed to be missing just one extra ingredient in 2013.
San Francisco, riding one of the NFL’s most rugged defenses to become an elite franchise again, struggled on offense before Michael Crabtree returned from a torn Achilles last December. His return made quarterback Colin Kaepernick, in his first full season as a starter, a much more confident, dangerous player down the stretch and into the playoffs.
Last season ended in Seattle with Kaepernick's intended pass to Crabtree in the end zone in the final seconds of a wild NFC title game being deflected and intercepted. The year before, the 49ers’ offense was just yards away from a Super Bowl victory.
San Francisco hopes the addition of the steady Johnson and the rugged Hyde will be enough to get them those last few yards to their first Super Bowl title in 20 years.
Instead of dipping into a deep receiver class, the 49ers jumped at Johnson, who became expendable after Buffalo selected Sammy Watkins on Thursday.
Add Johnson to an arsenal that includes Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis and Kaepernick should always have someone open. It should also help free Kaepernick to run.
The Hyde pick was a reminder the 49ers are run-first operation. The 49ers’ blueprint is to grind down opposing defenses with a mauling offensive line. The engine of that attack has been the venerable Frank Gore, who quietly has strung together a potential Hall of Fame career in San Francisco. But Gore turns 31 next week and he’s entering the final season of his contract.
The 49ers are paying Gore $6.4 million in 2014. They still believe in him. But Hyde and 2013 four-round pick Marcus Lattimore are the future. Hyde will get a chance to play now.
Hyde fits the Gore mold. He is 6 feet, 230 pounds. Hyde, who averaged 7.3 yards a carry and 3.1 yards after contact last season, described his running style as “violent.”
“He was the highest-rated player on our board,” Baalke said. “He’s more than just a power back.”
The 49ers are counting on Johnson and Hyde to propel the 49ers’ offense past Seattle’s Super Bowl defense.
Search is over: The 49ers had been looking at veteran receivers all offseason. They were connected to Julian Edelman, Hakeem Nicks, Emmanuel Sanders and DeSean Jackson before getting Johnson. This is an example of general manager Trent Baalke being patient and letting circumstances dictate the right way.
Help for Kaepernick: This is all about getting more options for quarterback Colin Kaepernick. We saw how much more effective and confident Kaepernick was when WR Michael Crabtree came back from an injury last December. It was a different Kaepernick and a different 49ers offense. This gives the offense more options. With Anquan Boldin, Crabtree and Johnson, the 49ers have three receivers who know how to get open and know how to make plays. This offense is much better today than it was yesterday.
Insurance policy: Crabtree is a free agent in 2015 and Boldin is 33. Johnson is 27 and has three more years on his contract.
How it affects the draft: I doubt the 49ers will pick Cody Latimer or Marqise Lee in the second round, but I could see them drafting a speedy receiver. They have a need there and they need youth. Perhaps Robert Herron of Wyoming or Donte Moncrief of Mississippi would fit in the third round.
Veterans who are affected: Second-year receiver Quinton Patton is well liked and he will have a role. Brandon Lloyd, who signed at a team-friendly rate earlier this offseason, will have to have a strong training camp to make the team. He will be 33 and he didn't play last season. Jon Baldwin is likely out of the mix.
New life for Johnson: Johnson didn't have a great year in 2013, but he was affected by injuries, a bad quarterback situation and some family losses. Johnson is still in his prime. He should be re-energized by going to a winner and playing with a quarterback of Kaepernick's caliber. Going back home won't hurt either. Johnson was born in San Francisco and grew up in in nearby Fairfield.
Scout's view: "Do it all receiver that doesn't have one thing he specifically excels at, but a very good football player … Would have preferred a burner, but he's another weapon and a highly productive one at that."
A look at their progress:
- Robert Quinn, St. Louis Rams (6.0 sacks): A three-sack game against Arizona on Thursday night doubled Quinn's total for the season. The Rams had nine sacks in the game overall. Quinn and fellow defensive end Chris Long dominated the Cardinals' offensive tackles. This was a dream situation was a pure pass-rusher such as Quinn. Arizona posed no threat in the run game. The Cardinals also fell behind. That combination played to Quinn's strengths. He'll face a much different, far more formidable challenge against Miami Dolphins left tackle Jake Long in Week 6.
- Aldon Smith, San Francisco (4.5): Smith did not get the 1.5 sacks he needed to break Reggie White's sack-era record for fewest career games to 20. He did deliver one particularly hard hit to Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick just after Fitzpatrick delivered the ball. Smith also tackled Bills receiver Stevie Johnson following a reception.
- Bruce Irvin, Seattle Seahawks (4.5): Irvin collected two sacks while playing 20 snaps against Carolina. His second sack forced a turnover, allowing the Seahawks to run out the clock on their 16-12 victory. Irvin appears increasingly comfortable as he gains experience. He is the only non-starter of the four listed here. Smith was also a situational player as a rookie. He collected 14 sacks in 2011. Irvin is now on pace for that many.
- Sam Acho, Arizona Cardinals (3.0): The Cardinals generate quite a bit of their pressure from the inside. They blitz more frequently than most teams, opening up chances for others. Inside linebacker Daryl Washington has five sacks. Acho tackled Philadelphia's Michael Vick and forced a fumble, which teammate Dan Williams recovered. That play did not count as a sack, but the turnover was important as Philadelphia was driving in Cardinals territory while trying to cut into a 10-0 Arizona lead.
While we're discussing pressure, I've put together a chart from ESPN Stats & Information showing how frequently NFC West teams and their opponents used five or more pass-rushers in Week 5. The 49ers never sent more than four against Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has taken only four sacks all season and gets the ball out quickly.
White needed 22 games. Smith has 18.5 sacks in his first 20 regular-season games.
Smith, who led the 49ers with 14 sacks as a rookie in 2011, had one sack wiped out by penalty in Week 4. He has 4.5 sacks through four games this season, putting him on pace for 18 sacks over a 16-game season.
Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has taken only four sacks in 136 drop backs this season.
Additional Bills-49ers notes, from ESPN Stats & Information:
- Fitzpatrick's 12 touchdown passes are a franchise record through four games.
- Fitzpatrick has thrown all seven of his interceptions against teams sending four or fewer pass-rushers. The 49ers have picked off 21 passes since the beginning of last season when sending four or fewer, third-most in the NFL. Opposing defenses have sent five or more against Fitzpatrick on 35 of 136 drop backs. The 49ers have sent added pressure 20.7 percent of the time since the start of last season, the second-lowest rate in the NFL. That includes 27.1 percent this season.
- Fitzpatrick completed only 2 of 10 passes when targeting Stevie Johnson in Week 4. Fitzpatrick and Johnson have the lowest completion percentage in the NFL this season among QB-WR combinations with at least 20 targets.
- The 49ers have 386 yards rushing outside the tackles, most in the NFL by 83 yards. They average 7.9 yards per carry on these rushes, third-best in the league. Their 18 rushing first downs on these runs rank first in the league. The team gave left tackle Joe Staley a contract extension in 2009, after Staley's second season. Right tackle Anthony Davis, who appears to be playing at a high level, is already in his third season. Not that agents would ever think of such things.
- Alex Smith's 29-yard pass to Vernon Davis in Week 1 stands as the 49ers' longest completion in 2012. San Francisco and Minnesota are the only teams without a 30-yard pass play. Smith had 15 such plays last season. The Bills have allowed three.
- Aldon Smith has recorded 18 of his 18.5 sacks when the 49ers sent four or fewer pass-rushers. No player has more on such plays.