Monday, July 7, 2008

Breakout Player: WR Bryant Johnson (49ers)

True or False? WR Anquan Boldin was the 1st Wide Receiver selected by the Arizona Cardinals in the 2003 NFL Draft?

If you picked 'True' than you are wrong. With the 1st Round 17th pick overall in that draft, the Cardinals selected 6'3 216 pound standout WR Bryant Johnson from Penn State (Bolden went in the 2nd Round 54th pick overall). Johnson is a big, physical receiver that plays the slot position, can make plays across the field and has decent hands. He creates good separation on the line of scrimmage and has steadily improved with his route running skills.

After 5 seasons in the NFL though, Johnson never had a breakout season and instead played 3rd fiddle to fellow teammates: Pro Bowl WR's Anquan Bolden, and Larry Fitzgerald. Despite playing in 77 career games, he has only started 39. His best year came in 2006 when he had 40 catches 740 yards receiving and 4 TDs. In 2007, Johnson had only 46 receptions for 528 yards and two touchdowns. The Cardinals did not make a serious run to re-sign Johnson and he instead signed a one-year deal as a free agent with the San Francisco 49ers..

What are the factors that will lead Johnson to having a breakout season in 2008?

1) Mike Martz The 49ers went out and signed offensive guru Martz to revamp their league worst offense. He has a proven track record of highly utilizing his WR corps including WR's like Issac Bruce (Rams), Torrey Holt (Rams), Kevin Curtis (Eagles), Roy Williams (Lions), and Shaun McDonald (Lions). Johnson fits the mold physically of what Martz likes in his receivers, emphasizing timing routes, ability to go over the middle, and possessing sure hands. Johnson is also reunited with his rookie WR coach Jerry Sullivan in SF; who is rated one of the top WR coaches in the entire league. Martz will give Johnson plenty of opportunities to catch the ball and put up big numbers.

2) #1 Receiver The 49ers have not had a true #1 WR since WR Terrell Owens left in 2003. While the 49ers have a lot of options with WR's Issac Bruce, Ashley Lelie, and Armaz Battle; Johnson has been getting the majority of reps in the starting slot this off season. He came to OTA and mini-camp well conditioned and has demonstrated the work ethic and production of a top receiver. While he has yet to tap his star potential of being a 1st Rd draft pick, Johnson could use this opportunity to showcase what he learned behind Pro Bowlers Bolden and Fitzgerald and make an immediate impact.

3) Money Johnson signed a one-year deal to play for the 49ers, thus establishing this upcoming season as a 'contract year'. Players in the NFL tend to work extra hard knowing full well that their production will generate a wealthy and lengthy multi-year contract worth millions of dollars. While Johnson is not viewed as a selfish player or teammate, the 49ers better hope that they can lock him up quickly if the production starts to come as the season goes on or risk losing him to another team.

Each of these factors are crucial in making an intriguing argument for a big season from WR Bryant Johnson in 2008. Finally, for Fantasy Football purposes, I slot him as a mid to late round 'sleeper' pick.

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