Should he stay or go? Bryant Johnson

With free agency set to begin near the end of this month, SFI takes a look at some of the top veterans on the San Francisco roster that will become free agents if they are not signed to deals with the team by Feb. 27. Should the 49ers make an effort to bring them back or let them go? We take a look at both sides. Today: The case of wide receiver Bryant Johnson, who's a tough call for the 49ers.

The 2007 season presented Johnson an opportunity he never really got during his five NFL seasons with the Arizona Cardinals. But his first season with the 49ers ended up looking a lot like the five he spent in Arizona.

Which is to say, it wasn't bad, but Johnson didn't quite establish himself as a front-line NFL starting wide receiver.

Arizona's first-round draft pick in 2003, Johnson never really got a chance to do that with the Cardinals because of the presence of Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. But he showed promise as a complement to those standout wideouts, finishing with at least 40 receptions in each of his final four seasons with the team.

He wasn't going to be a complement with the 49ers. Johnson signed a one-year, $2 million deal with the team last year with an opportunity to vie for status as the team's top receiving target as a starter. He immediately was inserted into the starting lineup during the team's spring minicamp.

Johnson certainly had his moments during his first season with the 49ers. But he ultimately was slowed by leg injuries that began during training camp in early August, then bothered him again during the season. He never missed a game while starting 12, but played sparingly in some of his non-starts and was held without a reception three times during the season and limited to one catch in two other games.

Johnson had six receptions for 78 yards in his second game as a 49er to help spark an overtime upset at Seattle, but that proved to be his season-high totals. He was a factor in the team's significantly improved passing game, and made several plays down the field to help move the offense in victories.

But Johnson never took over a game and had more than four catches in a game just three times during the season, never making himself an indispensable part of the offense. He finished second on the team to Isaac Bruce in receptions with 45, a figure he twice surpassed as a reserve in Arizona. He had a nice 12.1 average per receptions but got into the end zone only three times for touchdown receptions, a figure you'd like higher from your No. 2 wideout.

At 6-foot-3 and 211 pounds, Johnson is a big target who was able to get open at times and displayed dependable hands when the ball came his way. He's an upgrade over the veteran he replaced in the starting lineup, Darrell Jackson, and since he turns 29 in March, Johnson is in the prime of his career and still could have better days ahead of him.

But is he worth another deal – even if it's another one-year deal – with Bruce still entrenched as a productive starter and youngsters Jason Hill and Josh Morgan also ready to make a move forward in 2009?

The Johnson breakdown

Age: 29 on March 7

2008 performance: Johnson battled leg injuries that began in training camp, but he ultimately started 12 games and proved himself to be a reliable complementary receiving target. He finished the season with 45 receptions for 546 yards – second on the team in both categories to Isaac Bruce – and had three touchdowns.

2008 season grade: B-minus

Why he's worth keeping: Johnson is a solid, dependable target who was a definite upgrade for the 49ers in 2007 at one of their weakest positions over recent seasons. He has good size and skills and was a good teammate and presence in the locker room last season. If they were to lose Johnson, the 49ers would have to replace him with a player of similar capability if they expect to continue their progress at the wide receiver position.

Why he's not worth keeping: Johnson probably isn't worth more to the 49ers than the one-year, $2 million deal he signed with the team in 2007, and he may be looking for more on the open market this year if he can find it, along with perhaps a better opportunity elsewhere, since the 49ers appear enamored with the idea of moving youngster Josh Morgan into the starting lineup and ultimately ahead of Johnson. The 49ers also have a pair of veterans on the roster, Arnaz Battle and Jason Hill, who could pick up the slack in Johnson's absence and provide similar productivity.

Where he would fit with the 2009 49ers: Johnson would vie with Morgan for the starting role at split end and would fit into a receiver rotation that also could include veterans Bruce, Hill and Battle.

How he'd be replaced: Morgan and Hill would likely vie for the starting role at split end, and the 49ers almost surely would bring in another player to compete in the mix for that role, whether it be in free agency or through the draft.

Market level interest: Lukewarm. Johnson didn't have any takers on the big contract he was seeking last year in free agency, which is one of the reasons he settled for a one-year deal with the Niners. He didn't exactly increase his value when given his first opportunity as a full-time NFL starter. But he didn't exactly decrease it either. He'll find a home somewhere.

49ers interest level: Fair. The 49ers might like to keep Johnson around for another year as they transition 2008 rookie sensation Morgan into a starting role at split end. Despite his injuries, Johnson was a player who helped them this past season.

The verdict

With all the problems the 49ers have had at wide receiver in the past half decade – and the fact that 2008 top pass-catcher Bruce turns 37 in November and isn't in the team's long-term plans – the 49ers should be agreeable to bringing back Johnson for the right price, something measurable to the deal he signed with the team last year. Johnson's no star, but he's a proven veteran performer who still is at the top of his game and should be given an opportunity to build on what he did with the 49ers in 2008, unless the team can find a talent who it thinks can do better. That's no sure thing, so the 49ers should attempt to hold onto Johnson as a short-term solution who still could become part of the team's future plans at the position over the next several seasons.

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