Season review: Tight ends

SFI continues its breakdown of the 49ers' 2004 season by unit. Today: Tight ends

Starter in season opener: Eric Johnson

Starter in season finale: Eric Johnson

Unit MVP: Eric Johnson

Top newcomer: Steve Bush

Biggest disappointment: James Jordan

Numbers to note: Johnson set new franchise records for receptions (82) and yards receiving (825) by a tight end, and also became the first tight end to lead the team in receiving since Ted Kwalick in 1973.

The good: Johnson developed into an impact receiver at the position, and also a go-to player in a San Francisco passing game that was lacking in playmakers. He consistently beat linebackers and strong safeties in man coverage, forcing opposing defenses to adjust. He had a spectacular two-week span in which he could not be stopped, grabbing 10 passes for 113 yards in an Oct. 3 loss to St. Louis, then keying a miraculous comeback victory over Arizona the next week with a career-high 13 receptions for 162 yards, including the touchdown reception that began San Francisco's rally from a 16-point deficit in the final five minutes to force overtime. Though he was greatly overshadowed by Johnson's emergence, Aaron Walker was steady and solid – if not spectacular – in his second season. He averaged 12.4 yards on his nine receptions and had a few nice downfield grabs. Bush, who joined the team for its final five games, started one game and immediately became the team's best blocker at the position. He also was versatile enough to play fullback, and he scored San Francisco's final touchdown of the season playing that position on a pass out of the backfield.

The bad: Since he was the team's top receiving threats, opposing defenses worked hard to take Johnson out of games, and they were successful doing that several times over the last half of the season. Johnson had two or fewer receptions in five of San Francisco's final 10 games. He averaged 7.5 receptions over the first six games. The 49ers consistently failed to take advantage on the edges when Johnson was drawing double-coverage attention. There also were dozens of times Johnson was open this season when San Francisco quarterbacks couldn't get him the ball are threw in a different direction. While Walker didn't play poorly and still has upside at the position, he showed no improvement over his promising rookie season. Jordan, a converted wide receiver, promised to give the 49ers a Johnson-like receiving dimension at the position, but he had shoulder problems in training camp and missed the entire season on injured reserve. The blocking of Walker and Johnson, in particular, falls into a category somewhat below average.

The ugly: Not much ugly here, unless you want to count Johnson getting jobbed out of a Pro Bowl berth even though he ranked second in the NFC in receptions among tight ends. His consolation prize: He was named a Pro Bowl first alternate.

Looking ahead in 2005: Tight ends coach Dan Cozetto was fired on Jan. 21 and his replacement has yet to be named. The Niners probably will bring in a younger coach who will be asked to continue the development of Johnson and get more impact out of Walker. Johnson works hard and still will only be entering his fifth NFL season. He adds a unique dimension at the position as a receiver and should become even more of a threat as the team develops other weapons around him in the passing game, not to mention a running game. Walker, too, is a player who can make an impact, so it's unlikely the 49ers will make any personnel changes at the position, unless it's at the No. 3 tight end. But after what Bush showed in his short stint with the team, he can be a contributor in several areas and also should be brought back if the price is right. He gives the team the kind of blocking punch at the position neither Johnson or Walker can provide.

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