Insider analysis: Bryant Johnson

After playing third fiddle to Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald in Arizona, former first-round pick Bryant Johnson comes to the 49ers with an opportunity to establish himself as a legitimate starting WR. But does Johnson really have what it takes to fill that role with his new team? Cardinals expert Amberly Richardson spends some time at SFI to tell us everything there is to know about Johnson.

Amberly Richardson, AZRedReport.com: Bryant Johnson has everything the 49ers could want in a receiver.

He's well-built, fast and physical. Even more so, San Francisco is the perfect opportunity to come out from the shadows of superstars Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin.

Johnson wanted more opportunities to show his ability. If he can assimilate quickly in San Francisco he can accomplish the feat. He makes the routine receptions, but often fails to produce a highlight reel. Johnson needs to make an impression early on or he will likely fall back to his reliable backup role and see a hefty contract extension slip away.

One year is the 49ers' magic number as they were one of many interested teams who would not give Johnson a longer deal. He needs to prove himself before franchises start shelling out the big deals.

Teams likely took notice of his chief downfall: When he is under pressure, he focuses on those defending him rather than the play. This has led to dropped passes, but overall he has soft hands and is ready to prove it.

Johnson was popular in the open market, though. His last year in Arizona helped his case. Fitzgerald and Boldin suffered various ailments, which allowed Johnson to start in eight games. He finished with 46 receptions, which was good for 528 yards and two touchdowns. His best season was the year prior, though, when he had fewer receptions (40), but earned more yards (740) and doubled the end-zone celebrations (4). The two-year stretch was the best of his career.

Although his numbers were modest in Arizona, his 2003 first-round selection didn't leave the Cardinals empty-handed. He was a reliable third receiver, stepped in when needed and was consistent when given the opportunity. The Cardinals will be hard-pressed to replace his size (6-foot-3 and 213 pounds) and speed in their receiver corps.

Furthermore, the Cardinals had two first-round picks in 2003. Calvin Pace was the Cardinals' other 2003 first-rounder. In the overall picture, he and Johnson were both quasi-disappointments in terms of longevity in the desert.

The opening game of the 2008 season against the Cardinals should be interesting to watch because Johnson will attempt to show the fans what they are missing. He'll want to bring out all the punches with Cardinals eyes watching.

Craig Massei's take: The 49ers were fortunate to score Johnson on the open market, particularly since the team only had to make a one-year commitment at the very reasonable price of $2 million to bring him into the fold. Johnson gives San Francisco a size dimension at receiver that the 49ers have not enjoyed since Terrell Owens left town after the 2003 season, and he has fit in well since joining the team. He looked like a polished veteran during the team's spring minicamp after being handed a starting position at split end in the 49ers' new offensive system being directed by new coordinator Mike Martz. Some have questioned whether Johnson's skills would fit in well with Martz's scheme, which requires a man with good speed at the split end position. Johnson lacks elite deep speed, but he certainly looked quick enough during minicamp, and Martz scoffed at the suggestion Johnson couldn't thrive in his system. "The guy who has really stood out to me is B.J.," Martz told SFI earlier this month. "Bryant has been exceptional so far. I've been really pleased with what he's done." When asked by SFI if Johnson could be the vertical threat Martz needs in his offense, Martz replied, "Oh, he is. There's no question about that." Johnson also seems determined to make good on his opportunity as a starter after being overshadowed by Boldin and Fitzgerald in Arizona, and also to prove to teams who passed on giving him the long-term offer he was looking for on the free-agent market this year that he is worth such a deal. The 49ers ostensibly could be included in that group, but if Johnson shows he belongs, they'll be quick to offer a contract extension before the upcoming season is over. Johnson has displayed excellent focus and attitude with the 49ers and appears to be enjoying a fresh start with his new team. He has good instincts and seems to adjust well to the football. He also displayed good hands and caught the ball consistently, and his size makes him an imposing target that doesn't seem to have any fear going after the ball in traffic. Johnson is a great pickup for the 49ers, who had the worst receiver unit in the NFL last season. And he will have a chance to make himself a regular part of the offense and earn a place in the team's future if he lives up to expectations, which is no sure thing considering how the 49ers have fared with the veteran receivers they've brought in over the past four years. But having Isaac Bruce starting on the other side and dependable Arnaz Battle as the No. 3 wideout should help take some of the pressure off Johnson and give him an opportunity to thrive with his new team.


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