Season in review: Tight ends

SFI breaks down the 49ers' 2005 season by position. Today: Tight ends

Starter in season opener: Team began season opener in three-receiver set, with Johnnie Morton technically as the starting tight end. Rookie Billy Bajema was the starting lineup at tight end in Week 2 at Philadelphia

Starter in season finale: Bajema and Terry Jones started in a two-tight end set

Unit MVP: Billy Bajema

Biggest disappointment: Eric Johnson missing his second full season in three years due to a foot injury

On the rise: Billy Bajema

On the slide: Steve Bush

What went right: The 49ers found a prospect with some promise when they selected Bajema in the seventh round of the 2005 NFL draft with the No. 247 overall pick, the last of San Francisco's 11 draft choices. Bajema displayed some development as both a blocker and receiver, leading the team's tight ends with a 10.8 receiving average. He was second among San Francisco's tight ends with five receptions for 54 yards. Bajema started seven games and his 24-yard catch against Washington was the longest reception of the season for San Francisco's tight ends. He also had a 20-yarder against Tennessee. Jones, a fourth-year veteran, was picked up in mid-November after he was released by the Baltimore Ravens, and he was in the starting lineup his first game with the team. Jones started five of the seven games he played with San Francisco and led the 49ers in receiving among tight ends with nine receptions for 76 yards. The late-season blocking of Jones and Bajema contributed to a late surge by San Francisco's rushing attack. Bajema and Jones each started San Francisco's final two games in a two-tight end set, and the 49ers rushed for 399 yards in those two games.

What went wrong: Johnson, who set a team record for tight ends with 82 catches for 825 yards receiving in 2004, partially tore the plantar fascia in his left foot early in training camp and missed most of the team's summer workouts. When he attempted to come back after being inactive for San Francisco's first two games in September, he suffered a severe tear in the same area and was placed on injured reserve Sept. 22. San Francisco's hopes of getting anything out of the position on and offense that sorely needed the help went with him. Without Johnson, San Francisco's tight ends combined for only 20 receptions for 158 yards, a paltry 7.9 average, and did not have one touchdown reception all season – perhaps the worst production the 49ers have gotten out of the position in team history. Bush was limited by injuries early and was never a factor at the position, finishing with three receptions for 21 yards. The 49ers brought in a prospect off waivers in Trent Smith, who immediately got a chance to contribute as a downfield threat and started two games near midseason. But Smith dropped a long pass when he was wide open over the middle in the first quarter of San Francisco's 24-6 loss to the New York Giants on Nov. 6 – a play that might have gone for a touchdown, and at the very least would have set up the 49ers deep in New York territory – and he was placed on the practice squad two weeks later and never was heard from again the rest of the season, finishing the year with just three receptions for seven yards. San Francisco got just four receptions of longer than 10 yards from this position the entire season and, particularly in the first half of the schedule, the contribution in run blocking was consistently poor.

Looking forward in 2006: Because of his injury history, there has been some talk that the 49ers might cut their losses with Johnson and release him in the offseason because he's due a $1.05 million salary in 2006. But the team appears more inclined to bringing Johnson back and hoping that he can return to his 2004 form, because the team desperately needs a viable outlet option over the middle to help both young quarterback Alex Smith and its floundering offense improve. The 49ers will give Smith another opportunity to develop as a receiving tight end during the offseason, but Bush and Jones both are unlikely to be asked back. Bajema has a place in the team's immediate plans, but only as a backup, and the 49ers definitely will look to upgrade at this position by either bringing in an established veteran free agent or using a relatively high draft pick – such as a third- or fourth-rounder – to bring in a quality young prospect to develop for immediate contribution. If Johnson does return as expected, the 49ers must make sure they have an insurance option behind him so that they don't suffer the same ill fate at this position that they did in 2005.

Final 2005 unit grade: F


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