The battle is really on at tight end

The clear first impression at 49ers minicamp this week is that Vernon Davis and Eric Johnson aren't exactly going to be the best of friends. "Of course, I wasn't cheering them on for it," Johnson said of the 49ers' decision to select Davis with their top pick in the NFL draft last week. Said Davis about sharing time with Johnson: "There might be room for two tight ends here, you never know. It all depends on who works the hardest, who really wants it." And so, let the battle at tight end begin.

In fact, it already has begun – the minute NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue called out Davis' name as the No. 6 overall selection in the draft.

The 49ers have no plans to bring along slowly a player in which they invested such a high draft pick. Particularly with the team's new regime not exactly brimming with confidence in Johnson after he missed the entire 2005 season with a torn plantar fascia in his left foot, which came after he missed the entire 2003 season with a broken collarbone.

But then there's this little matter of the 2004 season, when Johnson set a franchise record for tight ends by reeling in 82 receptions while establishing himself as one of the NFL's top pass-catchers at the position.

That's proven performance. But with the talented Davis now in town representing a special breed of tight end as the New Boss at the position, what Johnson did in the past might not matter much in the present or as the team moves into the future.

Here's what Davis – who obviously is confident in himself and his ability – had to say when asked about Johnson's 82-catch season:

"I remember when he had 80-something catches. I remember that," Davis said. "That's another reason why I was anxious to get down here. I was like, ‘Ah, 82 catches.' I could do something great with 82 catches. Dang!" The inference seems to be that Johnson didn't do something great with those 82 catches, which he turned into 825 yards and just two touchdown receptions.

Maybe that wasn't Davis' intention, but it seems clear that he is not exactly enamored about having Johnson around to share time with at the position after the way everybody has been building him up as a budding NFL star over the past four months.

When asked about how he and Johnson would complement each other this season in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner's tight end-friendly offense, Davis laughed, then took a long pause before answering.

"There might be room for two tight ends, you never know," he finally responded. "It all depends on who works the hardest. There's a lot of competition. It's about working, who really wants it. I guess the rest of it will be on the coaches to decide. I'm pretty sure Norv Turner is going to put the ball in my hands."

Johnson – despite the rather impressive manner in which he has established himself as a receiving weapon since being drafted by the 49ers in the seventh round in 2001 – seems to realize that this is a no-win situation for him because of Davis' No. 1 status, and that he will have to make the best of the situation by talking up how he and Davis can be a lethal duo complementing each other at the position.

But that doesn't mean he isn't just a little bit peeved and disgruntled that his chances of becoming a Pro Bowl tight end with the 49ers – he was a Pro Bowl alternate in 2004 – have been turned upside down.

"Of course, I wasn't cheering them on for it," Johnson said when SFI asked for his reaction to the team selecting Davis. "Obviously, before the draft it wasn't my No. 1 priority to have them take the tight end. But when they did it, you just got to take what comes. It's something that's kind of a new challenge. I think having him on the team is going to make me take my game to the next level."

Not that he really has much choice.

"There will be some friendly competition," Johnson continued, "but I also think we can work together. I think we can do a lot of good things together in the passing game. I think both of us together can be a real force. We can both be receivers and tight ends and you can mix and match stuff. I think we can be the best tight end duo in the league."

Ultimately, this battle for playing time or working together at tight end – take your pick – will be decided by the team's coaches. Mike Nolan thinks that's a good problem to have, considering how weak San Francisco's passing game was in 2005, particularly at tight end, where – in Johnson's absence – Billy Bajema, Terry Jones and Trent Smith combined for a paltry 17 receptions for 137 yards with no touchdowns.

Nolan, who in the past has displayed some skepticism about Johnson's future with the team, shied away from directly commenting on any head-to-head competition between Johnson and Davis at the position.

"They'll complement each other from the standpoint that the best guys will be on the field," Nolan said. "If that means we use two tight ends, or that means we use three tight ends or one tight end, that's what we'll do. To say that one tight end in our offense is competing with another … Maybe for the one tight end package. But to get our best 11 on the field, maybe not. They could be out there at the same time."

But when SFI pressed further, asking Nolan if Davis was here to replace Johnson rather than complement him at tight end, Nolan responded somewhat cryptically.

"If you and I play the same position," Nolan said, "and if we're both pretty good – good enough to be on the field – then we're going to complement each other, for sure. Now, if I beat you out, then obviously that's a different deal."

The battle lines have been drawn. May the best man win – and you can already guess who most everybody thinks that's going to be.

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