Should he stay or should he go? Eric Johnson

NFL free agency is three weeks away, and SFI editor-in-chief Craig Massei takes a one-by-one look at some of the 49ers who are scheduled to become free agents when the new NFL season begins in March, analyzing which players San Francisco should attempt to bring back and which players the team should let go. Today: The case of veteran tight end Eric Johnson, a player who holds value to the team.

Of course Johnson holds value to the 49ers. After all, he's the franchise record-holder for most receptions in a season by a tight end.

That happened in 2004, when Johnson's team-leading 82 receptions for 825 yards was one of the few things to get excited about during San Francisco's disastrous free-fall to a 2-14 finish.

But it was during that season - when the 49ers had no legitimate receiving threats, just a bunch of wideouts who would be third receivers on most other NFL teams - that Johnson showed that he was a darn fine receiving threat who could beat linebackers and safeties and get free underneath coverage.

More importantly, he displayed toughness in catching the ball consistently and wasn't afraid to take a hit after extending himself over the middle.

Johnson has been a good 49er who works hard and has improved steadily as a player since being drafted in the seventh round by the team back in 2001. Based on performance and his willingness to contribute within the framework being established by the Mike Nolan regime, Johnson is a keeper.

But there are other factors involved with offering him a deal in free agency to remain with the team.

The biggest factor is a guy named Vernon Davis.

While Johnson is smoother and more reliable pass-catcher than Davis at this point, Davis is the future at tight end for the 49ers, and in fact already has become the team's present at the position.

Davis, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2006 draft, established himself as an every-down player with tremendous talent and physical ability who is better than Johnson in every significant measurable besides experience and sure hands. Johnson has no chance to beat out Davis as the starter if he remains with the team.

And there lies the rub. Johnson still sees himself as a starting tight end in the NFL - perhaps deservedly so - and while Johnson remained the good soldier as Davis took away his playing time in 2006, his discontent was evident on several occasions.

Johnson said last year that he would like to remain with the team, and certainly he could help the 49ers as a complement to Davis, which would give the 49ers one of the most lethal 1-2 receiving combinations in the NFL at tight end. Johnson also has improved as a blocker, which is a vital requirement at the position in the offense San Francisco now runs.

He'll be a commodity on the open market this year, because there are not a lot of other tight ends available who specialize as receiving threats. Johnson, Seattle's Jerramy Stevens and New Orleans' Billy Miller are the top receiving tight ends scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in March.

Johnson figures to be offered by another team on the open market more than he is worth to the 49ers. And, as former NFL scout Russ Lande told SFI late last season when analyzing San Francisco's offensive talent, "Johnson is a free agent this offseason and some team is going to pay him big bucks."

Lande also could see the value to the 49ers in keeping Johnson around.

"I think it would be a mistake if the Niners let him go," said Lande, author of GM Jr's Guide to the NFL Draft. "It's tough to get two very good starting tight ends enough catches. Davis has great potential and Johnson has proven himself already. If you keep both of them, it really gives you the opportunity to not have to rely on your receivers. It gives you the chance to create a lot of mismatches. I think they have the chance to be good, complementing tight ends."

However, even though Johnson was fourth on the team with 34 receptions for 292 yards in 2006 - many of those catches coming when Davis was out with a broken leg - Johnson did not seem to prosper as a player while playing second fiddle to Davis.

And Johnson has injury issues. He missed the entire 2003 season with a collarbone injury, then missed the entire 2005 season with a foot injury. He missed four games to injury in 2002 and three games to injury last season. He is not exactly a durable player.

And, as a veteran entering his seventh NFL season, Johnson will be looking for one final big payday in what probably will be the final multi-year deal of his career. Some team figures to throw some good money at Johnson. Should the 49ers attempt to match that money?

THE VERDICT: Unfortunately, no. It's not outlandish to believe some team in need of a receiving boost at tight end will offer Johnson something like a three-year, $10 million deal. While the 49ers certainly have that kind of money available to spend on a player such as Johnson, it is simply too much more money for them to invest at the tight end position, where Davis last year as a rookie signed the richest deal in NFL history for a tight end. If the Niners can get Johnson to return for, say, something like a three-year, $5 million deal with a nice signing bonus, they should attempt to keep him around with the stipulation his role will be as the No. 2 tight end. But that might not be enough for Johnson. And if it isn't, the 49ers should let him go.

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