49ers TE Johnson healthy, raring to play
SANTA CLARA -- In his hotel room Saturday night, 49ers tight end Eric Johnson felt the sensation in his stomach, that feeling of eagerness and anxiousness colliding.
After missing all of last season with a foot injury, Johnson was preparing for live action for the first time since the 2004 season.
On Sunday, the 49ers had an intrasquad scrimmage, and Johnson said it was great to get some full contact action before the exhibition season opens Friday night against the Chicago Bears.
"I haven't been involved in live hitting, so you always get those pregame jitters," Johnson said. "But it's a little more intense when you haven't been in there in a year. It was great to finally do some live drills and realize that it all comes back when you get in there."
As a whole, things are feeling a lot better for the 49ers' tight ends this season after a year in which the position seemed to fall off the edge of the Earth.
Terry Jones, a midseason veteran pickup, Billy Bajema, Steve Bush and Trent Smith combined for a measly 20 receptions for 158 yards and no touchdowns. The previous season, Johnson merited Pro Bowl consideration with 82 catches for 825 yards and two touchdowns.
Johnson, who originally came to the 49ers as a seventh-round pick in the 2001 draft, missed all of last season with a torn plantar fascia in his right foot -- an injury originally sustained early in training camp.
This year, the 49ers hope to have a healthy Johnson for the entire season. Moreover, big things are expected from immensely talented Vernon Davis, the No.6 overall pick in the draft, and another rookie, Delanie Walker, is one of the more intriguing players in camp.
When told the obvious -- that the tight ends look a lot better than a year ago -- tight ends coach Pete Hoener broke into a big smile.
"Hey, every year there are challenges that crop up, and last year it was ... OK, here we go," Hoener said.
If the first week of camp is any indication, Johnson appears ready to go. Despite the acquisition of Davis, Johnson is likely to be a big contributor to the offense this season. The 49ers have unsettled issues at wide receiver, so it's plausible their top two tight ends might find themselves on the field more than the No.3 wideout.
"It's tremendous to have Eric in there," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. "He's so good between the numbers (and) with his body control; (he's) such a good route-runner. He finds a way to get open. We can run anything in there, and Eric will find that hole, especially in zones.
"He's good for those other tight ends to learn from because he does things that some of those guys don't see. He's a guy to go to. It's reassuring to have him in there. Maybe when you're out of rhythm, you can find him and get back into it."
Johnson caught one pass from Smith during the scrimmage, netting about 8 yards. The play was the perfect scenario for Johnson, who came in contact with two different defenders before the pass was even thrown his way.
Smith faked a handoff and ran a bootleg around the right side. Johnson blocked down on a defensive tackle. Then, just after he released to get back to the outside, linebacker Parys Haralson, buying the initial fake, banged hard into Johnson's head.
Johnson managed to stay on his feet and scurry to the outside, where he was wide open for Smith.
"Just to get that catch was great," Johnson said. "It happened so fast. A lot of times when you haven't been in there in a long time, you're looking to get up the field before you get hit. But you've got to take that time to look the ball in and turn up the field. So it's good to get that rep in before a preseason game."
It will be interesting to see how the 9ers use both Davis and Johnson both very talented TEs on a team that lacks a true #1 WR.