What's Steve Johnson's Value on the San Francisco Depth Chart?

After being a Buffalo Bill his entire career, Steve Johnson is moving west. Does the 49ers' new receiver fit their current scheme and roster?

So much changes in our lives every day, every hour, every minute. I've personally been dealing with a lot of change in my life recently, and as one of the more existential football writers you’ll find out there, I tend to wonder a lot where things are taking me. I’m sure we’ve all had moments where something you knew to be fundamentally true completely changes, and now you have to learn how to cope. You have to figure out what to do. And most importantly, you have to relearn who you are.

As the late author H.P. Lovecraft said, “To be bitter is to attribute intent and personality to the formless, infinite, unchanging and unchangeable void. We drift on a chartless, resistless sea. Let us sing when we can, and forget the rest."

The selection of Sammy Watkins fourth overall in the 2014 NFL Draft certainly caused a sea change among the Buffalo Bills’ receiving corps. Shortly after the first round of the draft concluded, another major announcement came from Buffalo: after a 2013 season that never seemed to start, longtime wide receiver Steve Johnson had been traded to the San Francisco 49ers. Was Johnson bitter about this trade? All Johnson knew as a football player was being a Bill. Now he finds himself having to rediscover himself in the wake of injury, lack of production, in a new place. Personally, I am not sure that either Johnson or the 49ers will be singing again in 2014.

Steve Johnson: The Player

As he is rediscovering himself, we must ask ourselves: who really is Steve Johnson? The general perception of Johnson is that he is simply a steady, solid receiving option, but has unfortunately masqueraded as a number one wide receiver for most of his career. It’s time we unmask the true player.

While 2013 was possibly a major aberration, with Johnson suffering lingering injuries that hampered him (as well as dealing with personal concerns), it was also statistically his worst full season ever. The positives? Since 2010, he has not had a season with fewer than 100 targets, leading to a remarkable consistency in his Reception Net Expected Points each season. He averaged 99.02 Reception Net Expected Points (NEP) per season from 2010-12, and on an average 141 targets. This gives Johnson a Reception NEP per target - an efficiency metric we analyze here at numberFire - of 0.70, which is above average for a receiver.

There is a worrisome trend for Johnson, though, that must be addressed. Since his breakout year in 2010, he has steadily trended downward each season in two major efficiency metrics: Reception NEP per target and catch rate. In fact, the supposedly reliable Johnson has just a 55% catch rate for his career. Also known as a steady, though unspectacular, contributor, Johnson’s Reception NEP per target has dropped from 0.77 in 2010 to just 0.42 in 2013.

It seems that, more and more, Johnson’s NFL value is becoming reliant on the high volume he saw in his first full seasons in Buffalo. This may be due to a greater need by the Bills’ offense for him to function as less of a slot receiver (his natural position) and more as an outside threat. The decently-explosive, but in-no-way fast Johnson (4.58 40-yard dash at the 2008 NFL Combine) may have had his effectiveness numbers dropped by misuse in the Buffalo offense. So, he needs to be healthy, receive a lot of volume, and be utilized in the slot in order to maximize his value. Will this happen in San Francisco?

Johnson's New Team

The first thing to note is that there is not a lot of volume to go around in the 49ers smash-mouth offense. Despite 49er quarterbacks offering up 456 passing plays, only two San Francisco pass-catchers (wide receivers and tight ends) received more than 75 targets in 2013. Shockingly, 12 different pass-catchers received at least one target.

If we trust the decline in Steve Johnson’s productiveness, his Reception NEP should continue to drop as he goes to not only an anemic passing offense, but a crowded receiving corps. It’s quite clear that wide receivers Anquan Boldin (129 targets) and Michael Crabtree (33 targets in five games), as well as tight end Vernon Davis (84 targets) rule the roost here, so Johnson would at best slot in as the number four receiving option.

Another worrisome fact is that big-bodied possession receiver Boldin ran 49.8% of his routes out of the slot in 2013, meaning that Johnson may have to at least cameo on the outside if he is going to receive consistent snaps. One bright spot is that his new quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, ranked eighth in Passing NEP per drop back among quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs in 2013. That’s a marked improvement over Bills’ quarterback E.J. Manuel, who ranked 38th.

Can He Perform?

The 49ers have a way of using players to their best strengths, but this trade seems to be a low cost way of obtaining another useful piece to deploy; nothing more. Steve Johnson looks to be going to a team where his opportunities will drop significantly (569 pass plays in Buffalo to 456 in San Francisco in 2013), where he will be lower in the pecking order, and where playing time in his favored role is no guarantee.

I want to like the consistent Johnson, but his fall from grace in upstate New York will likely lead to near-obscurity in the Bay Area. It’s hard to recover value when you go from being the top option to potentially a rotational player at best. Perhaps Johnson will share a different comforting sentiment of our afore-mentioned author, Lovecraft: “Heaven knows where I'll end up - but it's a safe bet that I'll never be at the top of anything! Nor do I particularly care to be.”