Roster breakdown: TEs

SFI breaks down the 49ers' final 53-man roster by unit this week as the team closes in on Sunday's season opener against Atlanta. Today: Tight ends

Starter: Eric Johnson

Backups: Aaron Walker, Kevin Ware

What's new: Johnson is back as the starter after missing last season with a broken collarbone that required surgery at the end of the season. Ware adds a new dimension to the unit as a blocker.

What's to like: Johnson could become one of the top pass-catching tight ends in the league, particularly since the Niners plan to throw to their tight ends more than they have in perhaps the past decade. Johnson is a skilled receiver who can get open over the middle and also is a dependable dump-off option for quarterback Tim Rattay. Walker also could emerge as a factor in the passing game and he is a bigger target at 6-foot-6. He is a solid No. 2 tight end who has the skills to be an eventual No. 1 as both a blocker and receiver. Ware gives the Niners some blocking ability they didn't have at the position last year, and the Niners could experiment with him as an on-the-move H-back.

What's to wonder about: Johnson must stay healthy. He has missed 20 of the team's past 32 regular-season games due to injury. He also needs to improve as a blocker, though he has displayed some development in that area this year since returning from his injury. Is Walker ready for an increased role? He performed admirably last year as a rookie when thrown into a diminished No. 2 role after Johnson's injury. He'll see more time this year, and must hold up.

Key preseason stat: Johnson tied another tight end – Gabe Crecion, who was released at the final roster cutdown – for the team lead with 11 receptions. That's a strong indication the Niners will be going to the tight end more this season.

The bottom line: As long as Johnson isn't a liability as a blocker, this could be a position of strength for the Niners this year, and don't be surprised to see Johnson challenge for the team lead in receptions while San Francisco's young receivers get things sorted on the edges. Walker, too, has the ability to make an impact, and expect to see him ranging around in open territory across the middle on passing downs. The Niners will use more two tight-end sets to keep opponents guessing about what's coming this season, so opportunities will abound for this unit.

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