Conflicting reports have surfaced in recent days suggesting that theSan Francisco 49ers will soon decide on whether to release wide receiver Stevie Johnson or demand a pay cut. Dianna Marie Russini from NBC Washington reported the 49ers are expected to cut the San Francisco native. By releasing Johnson, the 49ers will be saving somewhere north of $6 million in cap space. However, Ian Rapoport of NFL.com said Johnson will take a pay cut to avoid being released.
For a number of years, the 49ers have lacked a serious down-field threat who can stretch the field and make the opposing defense fear the deep ball.
Johnson is not known for his straight-line speed when he was traded to San Francisco from the Buffalo Bills in 2014. However, the ability to get open and create space allows Johnson to be an invaluable possession receiver for the 49ers. The 28-year-old veteran had 35 receptions for 435 yards and three touchdowns with the 49ers. He was targeted a total of 49 times by quarterback Colin Kaepernick, resulting in a 102 passer rating when throwing to Johnson.
If the 49ers decide to terminate Johnson’s contract, it will leave Anquan Boldin, Bruce Ellington, Quinton Patton and a hand full of practice squad hopefuls as the only signed receivers for 2015. Ellington and Patton have limited NFL experience, splitting 12 career receptions apiece. Boldin is the only receiver on the books with significant playing time. Free agents Michael Crabtree and Brandon Lloyd are also not likely to return in 2015 due to salary cap constraints.
Assuming the release of Johnson, Crabtree and Lloyd before the 2015 season, the 49ers might feel comfortable starting Ellington or Patton alongside Boldin. It would also forecast San Francisco’s intent on drafting a top-five wide receiver in the first round of the 2015 NFL Draft. The 49ers could also replenish their receiving unit through free agency with cheaper alternatives, such as veterans Kenny Britt or Torrey Smith.
We can only speculate on what type of receiver recently hired head coach, Jim Tomsula, and his staff want to incorporate into their new offensive vision. But releasing or restructuring Johnson’s contract could suggest the 49ers will shy away from possession-type receivers in 2015.