3 Burning Questions: Tight end

With the exhibition season winding down, SFI continues its look at each of the 49ers' positional units and asks three pertinent questions regarding where they are headed in the 2005 season. Today: Tight end

Tight end was perhaps the one single area of the entire San Francisco offense last year that couldn't be considered a disappointing failure.

After missing the 2003 season due to a shoulder injury, Eric Johnson emerged in his fourth NFL season as the go-to guy in a passing attack that fell well short of the 49ers' usual standards.

But that certainly wasn't the fault of Johnson, who surpassed his previous career total while leading the team with 82 receptions, setting a team record for tight ends in the process.

The 49ers did a lot of tinkering with their offense during the offseason, but they didn't mess with Johnson. He's one piece in the puzzle that already fits.

Q: But how well does Johnson actually fit?

We know what you're thinking. Coach Mike Nolan plans to build his offense around a power rushing attack, and that will require better blocking from San Francisco's tight ends, who were weak in that area last year. Johnson has improved his blocking since his rookie season, but he's still a converted college receiver playing tight end in the big, bad NFL, and he always will be. The 49ers won't be pulling him in tight and running his way on third-and-1. They have other players who can do that, including burly Steve Bush, a strong blocker at tight end last year who's being converted to fullback this year because of his versatile skills. The 49ers plan to make wide use of Bush, including as an H-back in some formations, and they also used a seventh-round draft selection on Oklahoma State product Billy Bajema, a burly 261-pound prospect who looks as though he's already San Francisco's best blocker at the position. Bajema, who had a solid training camp, is primed to move past Aaron Walker as the No. 2 tight end.

Q: So Johnson will be used less than last season, when he was named a Pro Bowl alternate?

We're not saying that. Johnson already has a well-established rapport with holdover veteran quarterback Tim Rattay, and he was quickly developing one with rookie QB Alex Smith during the summer. With San Francisco's wideouts still largely unproven as far as being field-stretchers and game-breakers, 49ers quarterbacks have learned over the past two years to look for Johnson over the middle when nothing looks open elsewhere. It won't be any different this season.

Q: So he could approach team records and post-season recognition again?

That might be a bit more unlikely. The 49ers went to Johnson so many times last year because he was the only guy who could consistently get open. In fact, had the Niners not had so much turmoil at quarterback and receiver last season, Johnson might have approached a 100-catch season. His numbers don't figure to match last year's, however, as the 49ers are looking for a much more balanced attack in their return to a West Coast offensive system. And, let's face it, Johnson took a lot of punishment last year, which affected his performance in the second half of the season. The Niners would like to give Johnson a break and get their other tight ends a little more involved. Walker had just 10 catches last season, but he is an able catcher. But Bajema appeared to push past him at the end of summer camp and Walker could be a roster casualty. Bajema also has shown some ability as a receiver, so his continued development could cut into Johnson's playing time. The 49ers also are determined to get their wideouts more involved this season, and also will throw more to their running backs, which means Johnson probably won't have the featured role in the passing game he often enjoyed last year.

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