Stevie Johnson Deal Must Force San Francisco 49ers to Diversify Offense

Rob GoldbergFeatured ColumnistMay 10, 2014

CINCINNATI, OH - OCTOBER 02:  Stevie Johnson #13 of the Buffalo Bills runs with the ball during the NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on October 2, 2011 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

While the NFL draft is usually a time for teams to pick up young players to build for the future, the San Francisco 49ers made a move to bring in a veteran who will help immediately.

According to Adam Schefter of ESPN, the 49ers traded a conditional pick for Buffalo Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson:

Interestingly, he also noted later that more maneuvering got that selection back for San Francisco:

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:

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:

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:

via @PFF_Sam

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:

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.


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