Niners no longer Jones-ing at tight end
Jones started five games for the 49ers last season after he was claimed off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens on Nov. 15. He finished the year as the team's leading receiver among tight ends with nine catches for 76 yards. Jones, who was with the 49ers for seven games, finished the season with just three yards receiving fewer than the rest of the tight ends on the team combined – a testament to how much the 49ers struggled at the position in 2005. But Jones struggled the least of the four players who started for the 49ers at the position last year in place of regular starter Eric Johnson, who missed the entire season with a torn plantar fascia in his right foot. Johnson had set a team records for a tight end with 82 receptions for 825 yards in 2004, becoming the most reliable target in a rebuilding San Francisco passing game. Without him in 2005, the 49ers got practically invisible production at the position from veteran Steve Bush and second-year player Trent Smith before the 49ers picked up Jones off waivers. Rookie Billy Bajema, the team's seventh-round draft pick in 2005, started with Jones in two-tight end formations in San Francisco's final two games. Bajema started seven games overall and finished the season with five receptions for 54 yards. Johnson has recovered from his foot injury and is expected to be running pass routes at full speed by mid-April. He is expected to return as the team's starting tight end for the 2006 season, but the 49ers are a bit wary regarding how much they can count on him because of his injury history. Johnson also missed the entire 2003 season with a broken collarbone, and he has missed 36 games over the past four seasons to injury. Jones – who at 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds is a better blocker than Johnson and a capable target on short routes – gives the 49ers some veteran insurance at the position, whether or not they choose to add another player at the position through the upcoming April draft. In 53 career NFL games – 35 of them starts – Jones has recorded 59 receptions for 493 yards and five touchdowns. Since the draft is rich in quality prospects at tight end this year, the 49ers appear likely to use one of their 11 selections on a tight end – probably in the top half of those picks, where they ostensibly will be able to find a talent of starting quality that can be groomed for the future while also contributing in the present. Because of his all-around skills at the position, Jones will stay in the mix for playing time at tight end regardless of whom the 49ers might draft. He was one of the few tight ends of established veteran quality remaining on the open market, and he immediately falls into place on the roster at No. 2 on the depth chart behind Johnson at tight end. Bajema and Smith – who is playing right now in NFL Europe – are the other tight ends currently on the San Francisco roster, and re-signing Jones essentially assures the 49ers aren't interested in bringing Bush back for a third season with the team.
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