NFL Nation: Stevie Johnson
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.
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.
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."
Less than 24 hours after trading up in the first round Thursday night to draft Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, the Buffalo Bills sent veteran wideout Stevie Johnson to the San Francisco 49ers on Friday afternoon for a conditional 2015 fourth-round pick.
The writing was on the wall for Johnson to be dealt. Watkins was the draft's top receiver, and after the Bills gave up their 2015 first-round pick for him, he'll also be the Bills' top target. There wasn't room for both Johnson and Watkins at the top of the depth chart.
That made Johnson the alpha male in the Bills' receiver room, but he stumbled through much of last season, missing time throughout the season with various injuries. He never seemed to click on the field with rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, and he finished with 52 catches for 597 yards, his lowest totals since 2009.
The Bills have hitched their wagon to Manuel this season and made a significant gamble to move up the draft board for Watkins. The team believes Watkins is ready to contribute "immediately" and views him as a similar talent to Julio Jones and A.J. Green.
Yes, it would be ideal if the Bills could line up Johnson and Watkins together on the same field -- much like the Atlanta Falcons do with Jones and Roddy White -- but that just wasn't in the cards. It was time to move on.
Friday's trade gives greater clarity to the Bills' depth chart at receiver. Watkins, save for any significant rookie struggles, is the unquestioned top receiver. Robert Woods, the Bills' second-round pick last season, should continue in his No. 2 role and continue to develop. Offensive coordinator Nate Hackett will find a way to fit Mike Williams, acquired via trade this offseason, and Marquise Goodwin, a fourth-round pick last season, into the puzzle. T.J. Graham will still be fighting for his roster spot.
But by dealing Johnson, the Bills avoid any potential headaches from Johnson, who was one of the more free-spirited and outspoken players in the locker room in recent years.
The Bills don't benefit financially from trading Johnson this offseason, but the savings will be more found over the final two years of Johnson's deal. He had a $8.85 million cap number in 2015 and a $8.95 million cap number in 2016, which the Bills will avoid with this deal.
With Johnson gone, the Bills continue to move forward with their rebuilding project under second-year general manager Doug Whaley. They're betting on Watkins helping push them into the playoffs. Johnson isn't around as insurance, but that might be for the better.
The Bills could have potentially waited until after the draft, trying to squeeze more out of a team that wasn't able to land a receiver this week. In that sense, trading away Johnson might have come earlier than expected, but the move was predictable and understandable.
Watkins is now Buffalo's guy.
There are more immediate effects, however. Let's dive in:
No excuses for Manuel: To borrow a line from "Wedding Crashers," quarterback EJ Manuel must follow rule No. 76: "No excuses, play like a champion." If the Bills are right about Watkins, then Manuel has his No. 1 receiver. Calvin Johnson makes Matthew Stafford better, Julio Jones makes Matt Ryan better, and A.J. Green makes Andy Dalton better. If Manuel doesn't improve this season, it will be hard to justify the Bills keeping him as the starter into 2015. But it's very realistic to expect Manuel to improve. The Bills have given him what he needs to be successful and it should be a fun training camp and preseason as we potentially see Manuel mature.
Tight end, tackle skipped over: We'll go more in-depth into the Bills' second- and third-round options later Friday, but by trading up for Watkins, the Bills passed up selecting a tight end or offensive tackle at No. 9. They could target either of those positions on Day 2, but for right now, Scott Chandler remains their starting tight end, with Tony Moeaki his only true competition on the depth chart. The Bills remain shaky at right tackle, with Erik Pears and Chris Hairston potentially battling for the starting job if the Bills don't pick up a lineman Friday night.
Nearly a third of the league inquired about receiver DeSean Jackson, but not all the teams are known. Two of those teams reportedly have fallen out of the race for Jackson -- and both have coaches who previously worked with him (Andy Reid in Kansas City and Marty Mornhinweg with the New York Jets). The assumption is that this sends up red flags about Jackson; that’s not necessarily the case.
And it’s hard to get a good feel on who is really interested. Oakland and Washington definitely are, though to what extent remains to be seen. Jackson arrives in Washington Monday and will visit Tuesday. Thus far, it’s his only reported visit.
San Francisco’s name came up when Jackson was on the trade block and the 49ers had expressed interest in free-agent wide receiver Golden Tate, among others, before he signed with Detroit. So it would make sense that they’d at least inquire about Jackson. Tampa Bay has said they'd take a look, though it was a rather tepid endorsement.
Here’s a little handicap of some teams that have expressed interest or reportedly want to get in the race:
Cap space: Approximately $7 million
Why he’d consider: It’s a premier market in a premier conference. Oh, and they get to play the Eagles twice a year. The Redskins would have a lot of speed offensively with Jackson, Pierre Garcon, Andre Roberts and Jordan Reed and would be a major threat down the field. Add to it an athletic quarterback who can extend plays and the off-schedule explosions would increase. Robert Griffin III’s deep-ball ability will be important -- and his ability to extend plays. Jackson’s agent, Joel Segal, has definitely taken quarterback play into consideration in the past with his receivers. If Jackson is forced to take a one-year, prove-it deal, this especially would be a factor.
Why he wouldn’t: Because other teams can offer more. Washington can’t compete if Jackson’s strong desire is to return to the West Coast and play for the team he grew up rooting for (Oakland). If they want a more proven coach, San Francisco and Tampa Bay have to be a consideration (if the Bucs are strongly interested, which is debatable). And if San Francisco truly is interested, then the 49ers clearly would offer him a better chance for team success. The Redskins still have other needs to address so they can only spend so much, and it's hard to gauge how aggressive they'll be. But the fact that they have the first visit says something.
Cap space: Approximately $13 million
Why he’d consider: They have more cap room than most teams, so they could offer the sort of contract that could get it done now -- if they wanted to go that high. They need what Jackson provides (though many teams do).
Why he wouldn’t: The Bills aren’t a marquee team and their quarterback situation is questionable. EJ Manuel started 10 games as a rookie and showed flashes, but remains unproven. That has to be a strong consideration. None of their receivers had more than 597 yards last season, so how secure could you be? They have a good young talent in Robert Woods, a solid receiver in Stevie Johnson (nagging injuries, however) and a fast young guy in Marquise Goodwin. But that’s not exactly a Hall of Fame trio. The draft has to be an attractive option, so that could limit what the Bills would be willing to offer.
Cap space: Approximately $15 million
Why he’d consider: Because the Raiders were his favorite team growing up and he played college ball at nearby Cal. Jackson is a West Coast kid, and if his desire to return there is strong, then it will be hard to top. The Raiders need help at receiver so Jackson would fill a big hole. Also, the Raiders have more money than the other teams reportedly interested thus far.
Why he wouldn’t: The Raiders have a wait-and-see approach going on and, while they’d like him, they won’t overspend. So if another team is more aggressive, then Jackson could end up elsewhere. Also, other than going back to California, the Raiders aren’t exactly an attractive franchise. Their coach, Dennis Allen, will enter the season on the hot seat and their quarterback, Matt Schaub, is not known for throwing deep all that often. At this point, it’s uncertain if he remains a quality starting quarterback.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Cap space: Approximately $12 million
Why he’d consider: They have a potentially strong structure with new coach Lovie Smith. He’s a proven coach in the first year of his regime so he’ll be around several years at least. The Bucs have another explosive receiver to pair with Jackson in Vincent Jackson. Both are dangerous down the field. Oh, yeah, and they have the cap room to absorb a bigger contract.
Why he wouldn’t: Smith’s history suggests building around the run game and the defense. Also, they have a journeyman starting quarterback in Josh McCown and a second-year guy in Mike Glennon, whom the new coach did not draft (and replaced right away). So there are questions at this spot. Their interest is said to be lukewarm, so it’s hard to imagine them overspending for Jackson.
San Francisco 49ers
Cap space: Approximately $4 million
Why he’d consider: It’s the best team, it’s near where he played college ball and it puts him back on the West Coast. They need a receiver who can stretch the field to pair with Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis. Jackson would provide that and then some. They also have a big-armed quarterback in Colin Kaepernick who can let Jackson run under the ball and remind everyone of his explosiveness. Unlike Washington, the 49ers also have a defense that plays at a championship level, so if Jackson wants to produce and win, this could be the stop.
Why he wouldn’t: The 49ers were reportedly interested in pursuing a trade, according to Pro Football Talk. But their cap number isn’t high and they already have talent at receiver. They could opt for the draft, which is deep at this position and has a few players with Jackson-like qualities (though no one can match his acceleration on deep balls). Hard to know what the reported friction with the 49ers between general manager Trent Baalke and coach Jim Harbaugh means for the future of either person and, subsequently, a guy like Jackson.
Since Saturday, teams have been able to enter into talks with opposing teams' free agents. Starting Tuesday at 4 p.m., deals can become official.
Until then, let's recap what we've learned over the past few days:
1. The Bills will need to make a decision on several players who are due large roster bonuses this week. Quarterback Kevin Kolb ($1 million) and linebacker Manny Lawson ($500,000) are both due roster bonuses on Thursday. On Saturday, the Bills owe wide receiver Stevie Johnson a $1.75 million roster bonus. Last week, Bills general manager Doug Whaley addressed Kolb's situation with John Kryk of the Toronto Sun. "It's a tricky situation," Whaley told Kryk. "We're going to be very careful how we handle this, and the foremost consideration in the whole equation is him being healthy." It would be a surprise if Kolb remains with the team past this week. Lawson and Johnson are longer shots to be released but their situations still bear watching.
2. Last week, the Bills hosted linebackers Jameel McClain and Jasper Brinkley, who were both released by their former teams. Brinkley could be off the market soon, as Fox Sports' Mike Garafolo reported Sunday that the Minnesota Vikings will bring back Brinkley on a one-year deal. Meanwhile, McClain will still meet with the Vikings on Monday, reports 1500 ESPN's Darren Wolfson. We ranked linebacker as the Bills' top free-agent need and we wouldn't be surprised if the Bills made a play to sign one of the top free-agent linebackers available. Jon Beason and Karlos Dansby are among those who are hitting the open market this week.
3. ESPN.com Miami Dolphins reporter James Walker reported Monday that safety Jairus Byrd is seeking a deal that pays him at least $9 million per season. That would make Byrd the highest-paid safety in the NFL, at least in terms of average salary per season. The NFL Network reported over the weekend that the Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams have expressed interest in Byrd.
4. While Tuesday is the start of the free-agent signing period, it's also the first day that teams can complete trades. At this point, don't rule out activity on that end from the Bills.
Buffalo Bills coach Doug Marrone and general manager Doug Whaley both spoke to reporters last week, providing a few nuggets as the team progresses through the offseason.
Here's our biggest takeaways from Marrone and Whaley:
2. Marrone reaches out to Stevie Johnson: One of the more complex personalities within the Bills' locker room is wide receiver Stevie Johnson, whose long-term future with the team has been clouded by a large roster bonus due next month. Johnson played through several injuries last season, one which ended early after the death of his mother in December. On Thursday, Marrone was asked about a report that the coaching staff had trouble connecting with Johnson last season. Graham lays out the background to the question and Marrone's answer.
4. Dareus extension on radar: Defensive tackle Marcell Dareus made his first Pro Bowl last month, and despite being benched for parts of the final two games after being late to team meetings, the Bills are apparently interested in keeping the former third-overall pick around for the long-term. Whaley was asked about the possibility of a contract extension for Dareus, and said: "It’s on our radar, but right now we prioritize things." Dareus, like other first-round picks, has a team option in his deal that would keep him under contract through the 2015 season.
5. Whaley would take the "bigger guy: This year's quarterback class is considered stronger than last year, when the Bills took Manuel off the board at 16th overall. WGR 550's Joe Buscaglia relays an exchange where a reporter asked Whaley how he would rank Manuel if he was part of the 2014 draft class. "Oooh. Good question," Whaley said. "I would have to say he would be talked in the top tier of those guys. Just with his size and athletic ability, you looked at the measurements now, there was only one guy close to his size and that was Blake Bortles at 6-5, and AJ McCarron was over the 6-3, so he's in there. I'm a big proponent that everything equal, you go with the bigger guy."
7. Kiko on the move? When we spoke to former defensive coordinator Mike Pettine last season about Kiko Alonso, Pettine pointed out that Alonso could play any of the linebacker spots within the defense. While the Bills' best bet is to keep Alonso -- who did not come off the field last season -- as their "Mike" linebacker, Whaley didn't rule out the chance of moving Alonso to outside linebacker in Jim Schwartz's scheme. "He would excel there, just like he excelled at middle linebacker," Whaley said, according to Graham. "But either way -- middle linebacker, 'Will' or 'Sam' -- we think this guy's going to have a bright future."