Stevie Johnson Perfect for Philip Rivers but No Cure-All for Chargers Offense

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystMarch 17, 2015

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 7:  Wide receiver Stevie Johnson #13 of the San Francisco 49ers tries unsuccessfully to pull down a pass against cornerback Chimdi Chekwa #35 of the Oakland Raiders in the second quarter on December 7, 2014 at O.co Coliseum in Oakland, California.  The Raiders won 24-13.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

The San Diego Chargers have only dabbled in free agency to this point, which is usually a good thing. General manager Tom Telesco has focused on filling key needs only when the right players come along.

When the San Francisco 49ers cut wide receiver Steve Johnson, Telesco procured the first visit with the 28-year-old. After a visit with the New England Patriots, Johnson signed on the dotted line to join quarterback Philip Rivers and his small group of weapons, as first reported by Dianna Marie Russini of NBC4 in Washington.

Johnson is a perfect fit for Rivers, but he's no cure-all for the offense. The Chargers had to replace the production they lost when slot receiver Eddie Royal left for Chicago and running back Ryan Mathews for Philadelphia.

Rivers still needs a No. 1 receiver, but by adding Johnson, the Chargers no longer have a need so pressing that they have to reach for one in the draft. Telesco is certainly free to draft a No. 1 receiver if one falls, but he no longer must add a weapon just for his offense to maintain the status quo.

It's clear after the Chargers offered wide receiver Andre Johnson the most money that wide receiver was a spot Telesco was trying to upgrade. He ultimately couldn't compete with a University of Miami reunion and a young quarterback like Andrew Luck, but he did manage to make his team a bit more attractive than the Super Bowl champions.

Johnson vs. Johnson
PlayerRoutesTargetsReceptionsCatch RateYardsTouchdowns
Andre Johnson4871418560.39363
Steve Johnson204493571.44353
Difference-283-92-50+11.1-5010
Pro Football Focus

One proven method of luring players is money. It doesn't always work on older players who are chasing a ring, but for a younger player like Johnson, it probably did. Johnson refused a pay cut in San Francisco, per Ian Rapoport of NFL.com. He was clearly was thinking about another payday if he hit the market, and there is nothing wrong with players trying to find the best deal.

The Chargers gave Johnson a three-year deal worth $10.5 million with $1.5 million in incentives, per Rapoport. It's a very reasonable deal for a receiver with three 1,000-yards seasons on his resume who will be a big part of the offense. If the Chargers had to kick in the incentives to get him, it will more than pay off if he earns them.

Johnson was at his best when he had a good chemistry with his quarterback and could run option routes. He did this well in Buffalo with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick but struggled to find opportunities with the more downfield-throwing Colin Kaepernick in 2014, and rookie bust EJ Manuel struggled getting him the ball in 2013.

Rivers has been throwing option routes to tight end Antonio Gates for what seems like forever, and Royal was one of his favorite targets on those routes as well. Johnson should be much better in San Diego than he was in San Francisco, but the Chargers are getting him for a much lower cost.

Johnson was productive on limited usage in San Francisco, so there's no reason to believe the Chargers can't get more out of him. That's especially true because he's been productive with more usage before, and Rivers is among the best at developing chemistry with his receivers.

Last season, Johnson was 16th in the league with 2.16 yards per route run on 49 targets and 204 routes run. The only receiver who was as productive on fewer targets was Pittsburgh Steelers rookie Martavis Bryant on 48 targets. Otherwise, the only receiver as productive on fewer than 100 targets was Washington deep threat DeSean Jackson with 87.

Stevie Johnson by Year
YearTargetsRoutesYardsYPRR
2014492044352.13
2013953835971.56
201214455110461.9
201113255010041.83
201013954910731.95
Pro Football Focus

Until 2013, Johnson was shockingly consistent. Johnson ran 549 routes, 550 routes and 551 routes in consecutive years from 2010 to 2012. The net result was 139 targets, 132 targets and 144 targets for 1,073 yards, 1,004 yards and 1,046 yards.  

Last year, Royal ran 516 routes. In 2013, he ran 437, and Vincent Brown ran 518 with Malcolm Floyd hurt. In 2012, Danario Alexander and Robert Meachem combined for 558 routes run. In short, the opportunities will be there for Johnson, and he's proved effective with similar opportunities.

What Johnson doesn't bring is any kind of game-breaking ability to an offense that needs it. Johnson isn't great after the catch, and he doesn't really stretch the field vertically. Royal has actually been one of the better receivers after the catch over the last couple of seasons, and the Chargers haven't really had a vertical threat since Vincent Jackson left.

The Chargers can make up for run after the catch with run before the catch, but a field-stretching threat would certainly help Johnson and Keenan Allen to thrive. If the Chargers can find one in the draft, they'll be in good shape offensively. If not, they need to find a running back and continue to rely on efficiency, but either way, Johnson helps for an affordable price.


Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro Football Focus.

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