Niners notebook

Tight end Eric Johnson was the 49ers' leading receiver in 2004, catching 82 passes for 825 yards. When Johnson missed all of last season with a foot injury, the club could not fill the void. Johnson, a seventh-round draft pick in 2001, missed four games in 2002 with a back injury and sat out the entire 2003 season with a broken collarbone. He said he wouldn't be surprised to see the 49ers use an early pick in this month's draft on a TE, and he'd welcome the challenge such a player would present.

"If I were an owner, I'd want depth," Johnson told the Sacramento Bee. "I'd want depth at every position. If they draft a tight end early, I'm not going to be offended in any way. That'll inspire me even more to pick up my game."

There is a possibility the 49ers could select Maryland tight end Vernon Davis with the No. 6 overall pick or if they trade back a few slots.

The 49ers got little production from their passing game last season. Their tight ends contributed a measly 20 receptions for 158 yards. Veteran Terry Jones, whom the Ravens released midway through the season, immediately became the team's top tight end after getting claimed off waivers.

The 49ers considered releasing Johnson this off-season to save $1.55 million in cap room. But Johnson impressed coach Mike Nolan when the two met after the season. Johnson said he wanted to remain with the 49ers and would work hard and participate in the team's off-season program.

Johnson is a regular at the 49ers' practice facility in Santa Clara, Calif., learning the nuances of the new offensive system of coordinator Norv Turner. He is also working with young quarterback Alex Smith to create a rapport like the one he enjoyed with former quarterback Tim Rattay.

"That's why I want to be here for all the workouts," Johnson said. "I want to be throwing with Alex in the next couple of weeks and take it right through mini-camps."

--- Quarterback Cody Pickett started two games last season after injuries knocked Alex Smith and Ken Dorsey out of the lineup. But Pickett did a lot of other things, too.

He played special teams in three games last season and also saw a lot of action in practice at wide receiver and safety. At times, he appeared to be the 49ers' best receiver on the practice field.

Pickett's versatility has prompted questions to Nolan of whether the 49ers would consider changing his position. Nolan said he expects to get a lot of input from new offensive coordinator Norv Turner.

"As things go forward, I'd love to see him play quarterback because he's got some tools," Nolan said. "At the same time, I hope we can get him on the field in other ways. It's a good problem to have with Cody. We'll discuss it a lot further.

"I want Norv to look at all the quarterbacks and have some time with them before say what we're going to do."

--- Linebacker Brandon Moore started 10 games last season, most of which came as a replacement for Jeff Ulbrich after his season-ending injury. Moore finished second on the team with 93 tackles and five sacks, but his starting job is not assured this season.

Ulbrich and leading tackler Derek Smith are slated to start at the two inside linebacker positions. To remain a starter, Moore will probably have to nail down one of the outside spots.

Moore said he is excited to be working another year under linebackers coach Mike Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker.

"Coach Singletary and I talked at the end of the year ands he as well as I believe I have mounds to go," Moore said. "There is so much room for improvement. I believe it and he believes it. It's just going to be a matter of how hard I work at it and how much I believe in it. I think there are a lot more things I have to prove, and there are a lot more ways that I can get better."

In fact, Moore said Singletary is one of the reasons he sign a five-year, $8 million contract with a $2.6 million signing bonus to return to the 49ers.

"Oh, definitely, he was a huge factor," Moore said. "There were some teams that were interested me and I'd always go back to my agent and say what are the 49ers going to do? You don't always get in the situation where you love everyone around you and when you respect everyone around you and everyone around you respects you. That is where this organization is right now."

--- The 49ers have a chance to make an impact on its roster with this month's draft. The club is set to have five picks in the first 100 selections. The 49ers are scheduled to have picks No. 6, No. 37 (second round), Nos. 68 and 84 (third round) and No. 100 (fourth round). The club also has six picks in the final three rounds, including one compensatory selection.

--- Linebacker A.J. Hawk, a candidate for the 49ers to select with the No. 6 overall pick, was the first of the draft-eligible players to visit the 49ers' team offices in Santa Clara, Calif., to meet with club officials and coaches.

More players are expected to visit the 49ers in the next couple weeks, including North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams, Maryland tight end Vernon Davis, USC safety Darnell Bing and Virginia Tech cornerback Jimmy Williams.

--- The 49ers did not make an effort to re-sign fullback Fred Beasley, allowing him to sign a one-year contract with the Dolphins this off-season. The club re-signed journeyman Chris Hetherington, who supplanted Beasley as the full-time fullback midway through last season.

The 49ers have held discussions with Bengals restricted free agent Jeremi Johnson, a fourth-round draft pick in 2003. However, it might not be wise for the 49ers to sign Johnson to an offer sheet because it would mean they would have to part with their fourth-round pick if the Bengals don't match. The 49ers are set to pick third in the fourth round, with the No. 100 overall pick.

The 49ers do not currently have a backup to Hetherington, so if they do not acquire Johnson, they are likely to spend a late-round pick on a fullback who can be groomed behind Hetherington.

--- The 49ers played competitive football at Monster Park, their home stadium, while struggling on the road. If last year's records are any indication, the 49ers have an easier home schedule this season. They face only one playoff team from 2005 at home: the Seahawks.

After opening on the road against the Cardinals, the 49ers have four of their next five games at home, against the Rams, Eagles, Raiders and Chargers.

Three of the 49ers' four victories last season came at home, where they averaged 17.3 points a game and yielded 22.8. On the road, the 49ers were abysmal, winning just once, while scoring 12.6 points per game and surrendering 30.8.

Based on last year's records, the 49ers have a much easier home schedule this season. Their eight home opponents compiled a .438 winning percentage, with five of them recording six wins or fewer.

The 49ers' road opponents recorded a .516 win percentage last season, with the Seahawks, Bears and Broncos each earning spots in the playoffs.

TEAM NEEDS
1. Pass rusher: The 49ers have already lost Andre Carter to the Redskins through free agency, and OLB Julian Peterson signed with Seattle. The 49ers need to find players to put heat on the quarterback, whether they are DEs or OLBs in the 49ers' 3-4 scheme.
2. Defensive back: The 49ers added CB Walt Harris through free agency, but they're not through at this position. Harris is ideally suited to be a nickel back. The 49ers need another good CB. They also are in the market for a free safety to take over for Mike Adams, who started 10 games last season and struggled.
3. Tight end: Antonio Bryant and Arnaz Battle appear set as the team's starting receivers, but the 49ers need to find some help in the passing game from the tight position. Eric Johnson is expected to return after missing all of last season with a foot injury, but they need to find someone who is not so injury-prone to be a factor as a pass catcher.

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