Filed to ESPN: 49ers trading a conditional 2015 4th-round pick to Buffalo for WR Stevie Johnson, per sources. Pick can become a 3rd.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) May 9, 2014
Interestingly, he also noted later that more maneuvering got that selection back for San Francisco:
SF just got Denver's 4th-round pick in 2015...so WR Stevie Johnson is coming to 49ers for free.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) May 10, 2014
ESPN's Jamele Hill was one of many who liked the move for the 49ers based on the upgrade it provided to the team's receiving corps:
For the 49ers to have a WR corp of Crabtree, Boldin and Stevie Johnson...#MommyLikey— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) May 9, 2014
Based on what we have seen in his career, Johnson is a unique talent who can be extremely productive out of the slot. He had over 1,000 receiving yards in three consecutive years from 2010-12, totaling 23 touchdowns in that stretch.
Although his numbers dropped last season while he played only 12 games, he has still shown the ability to beat some really good cornerbacks attempting to stop him in man coverage. Field Yates of ESPN notes how well he did against Darrelle Revis in his career:
Stevie Johnson was one of very few WR who have previously had success when being covered by Revis. Patriots not sad to see him traded.— Field Yates (@FieldYates) May 9, 2014
As for San Francisco, the coaching staff is hoping that he can beat another elite cornerback in Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks. Sam Monson of Pro Football Focus shows that he has done this in the past:
The only question for the 49ers is whether they will be able to use him to his full abilities.
For years, San Francisco has been a run-first team. In most cases, the squad runs second and runs third as well. This past season, it finished dead last in the NFL in passing attempts, averaging just over 26 per game.
This is exactly what the team was built to do. According to Khaled Elsayed of Pro Football Focus, the offensive line was the No. 3 unit in the league in run blocking. Frank Gore has been known as one of the toughest runners in the NFL for a long time, while Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James had solid seasons as well in 2013.
Additionally, the 49ers used a second-round pick on running back Carlos Hyde, something that will cause more big lineups in the offense, according to Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen:
RB Carlos Hyde to the #49ers means more 2/3 TE sets + Power O, Lead, Counter OF, etc. Line up & run downhill.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) May 10, 2014
While this run-heavy strategy has led to success in the past, it becomes a problem against good defenses. The team was held to single digits on three different occasions last season as the one-dimensional unit could not make plays when needed.
The problem was that the 49ers did not have the personnel to expand the passing game. While Anquan Boldin had a big season in his first year with the club, Michael Crabtree missed most of the year due to injury and no one stepped up in his absence.
In the end, Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis combined for 20 of the team's 21 receiving touchdowns in 2013.
However, Crabtree should be healthy the entire season and will look to pair with Boldin to make a formidable duo on the outside. Bringing in Johnson—as well as fourth-round pick Bruce Ellington—gives the team added targets in the slot.
The key will be for the coaching staff to find a way to get these players on the field at the same time. They have to find a way to give quarterback Colin Kaepernick as many options as possible.
One of the biggest criticism for Kaepernick is that he is a one-read passer who does not know what to do when his first option is covered. Of course, he was hurt by the lack of alternatives on a regular basis. Secondary targets like Kyle Williams or Mario Manningham simply could not get open.
This should not be a problem when the 49ers spread their offense next season. Johnson can beat almost any cornerback in the slot, and the combination of Boldin and Crabtree should have good opportunities down the field.
The pressure is now on offensive coordinator Greg Roman. He has to find a way to spread the field and utilize Kaepernick's skill in the passing game instead of just relying on the run. Otherwise, the team will suffer a similar fate of falling just short of a championship for the third season in a row.
Follow Rob Goldberg on Twitter for the latest breaking news and analysis.