TE targeted to be top threat?

Eric Johnson looks like a tight end who has been released from chains during 49ers training camp practices. And it's not just because he is healthy and strong and free from the back problems that hampered him last year. It's because he's working in an offense that plans to make better use of his receiving skills this season and, perhaps, even turn him into one of the league's top downfield threats at his position.

That would certainly be OK with Johnson. He's looking for big things this year in coach Dennis Erickson's revamped version of San Francisco's West Coast offense.

"I want to be a top tight end in this league," Johnson said. "I want to make this just a very big year personally, and then to contribute to the team and have a big year in that respect."

Erickson's offense is designed to get the tight end more involved as a receiver. After a promising rookie season in which he started 15 games and had 40 receptions and became an integral part of the offense, Johnson's effectiveness was diminished last year by a lower back problem that kept him out of four games and limited him to 10 starts.

He also was less of a receiving threat than the year before, averaging 8.9 yards on his 36 receptions and failing to catch a touchdown pass after having three TDs as a rookie.

"I think Eric's ability as a receiver is the biggest thing he's got going for him," Erickson said. "He's very talented on the receiving end. So we have to find a way to get the ball to him. A lot of it depends on double coverages and so forth. Within our scheme of what we're doing, there's a lot of opportunities for a tight end to catch balls."

Johnson's ready for the opportunity. He spent the offseason getting his back right and getting in tiptop shape. Already a good receiving tight end, he has worked on refining his blocking skills along with honing the fundamentals and technique necessary to make him a quality all-around player at the position.

"Last year was disappointing," Johnson said. "I want to put both of my first two seasons behind me and just move on. I feel like I've worked really hard to be in good shape for this year. I'm just going to keep on working on what I need to do to get better. I feel like I'll be a good blocker and hopefully a great receiver, and things will just happen from there."


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