SANTA CLARA — Stevie Johnson had produced three straight 1,000-yard seasons with 23 touchdown catches as Buffalo’s most dynamic player in the passing game when that streak ended in frustrating fashion last year.
His 12-game total: 52 catches, 597 yards and three TDs.
There were injuries, and a tough personal moment with the unexpected death of his mother.
Now he has a chance to start a new streak with his new team, back home in the Bay Area with the Niners. Even if the skeptics wonder whether he can still show signs of returning to his former football self.
“That’s with everything. I can’t say that’s my direct focus. I know there are people who are saying I can’t do it again, I know there are people saying that I can,” Johnson said. “All I’ve got to do is put my head down and keep working, work with my brothers and see how it goes.”
The 28-year-old Johnson, who was born in San Francisco and went to high school in Fairfield, came to the 49ers in a trade from the Bills on the second day of the NFL draft in May. In a talented and deep receiving corps, Johnson is confident he can still have a big impact whatever his role.
During one recent practice, he made a leaping 25-yard catch on a pretty pass by Blaine Gabbert along the right sideline while easily landing both feet inbounds as an official signaled the reception. That came a day after Johnson dropped a ball in the end zone.
He will get his first game action chance in Thursday’s preseason opener at Baltimore.
“Stevie is Stevie. He gets open. He makes plays. Very excited to see what he does in live action for us,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said Tuesday before the team departed for the East Coast. “Stevie’s a pro. He’s picked up the offense quickly. He makes very few mistakes in the little time that he’s been here. As a quarterback, you like to see that.”
With the Bills, Johnson became the first player in team history to reach 1,000 yards receiving in consecutive seasons. He spent the past four seasons as a starter in Buffalo, yet will have to compete for playing time in this receivers group — the best that fourth-year quarterback Kaepernick has seen so far.
Kaepernick has quickly found a rhythm with Johnson, saying that was “pretty easy” given the separation the athletic 6-foot-2 wideout creates.
“Very quick, very deceptive, and I’m happy he’s on our side of the ball,” Kaepernick said.
Best suited to play an inside slot position, Johnson has 301 total receptions for 3,842 yards and 28 touchdowns. Much like new teammate and fellow receiver Anquan Boldin, Johnson has been known to show his emotions and let loose while celebrating.
Yet now, Johnson seems determined to keep his mouth shut and show that he can still be the dominant playmaker he once was.
“Yeah, for sure. When you come off three straight 1,000 (yard seasons) and you don’t get it the year after that, it’s always, ‘You’ve got to get better.’ You feel like you’ve got to be better than last year,” he said. “That’s the goal collectively as a team. The Niners, they didn’t win a Super Bowl, and we feel we have to get there and win.”
Not only was Johnson slowed by injuries, he was excused by the team for the final two games of the season following the death of his mother.
A fresh start is welcome out West, where as a boy he used to throw rocks into San Francisco Bay off Candlestick Point. A bit bummed out he won’t play in Candlestick Park, Johnson sees this as an opportunity to help San Francisco establish some momentum in its sparkling new $1.2 billion Levi’s Stadium.
There are expectations playing close to home, too.
“That’s just like the 1,000-yard thing,” Johnson said. “It’s good to be home but at the same time it’s kind of tough because you have everybody in your ear. You can take it either way. I’m an optimistic type of guy, so I think it’s cool. Every day is cool so far.”
Notes: Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said it hasn’t been decided whether RB Frank Gore will play Thursday. … On simplifying the offensive playbook this offseason, Roman said, “It was time to clean out the garage.”