Through the gloom of the 49ers' worst season in a generation there has been one improbable bright spot: Eric Johnson, a seventh-round draft pick out of Yale in 2001, is having the best pass-receiving season ever by a San Francisco tight end. He has already broken team records for his position in catches (77) and yards (780).
The 6'3" 250 pounder has come a long way since his rookie year, when he remembers an opponent chiding him, "You should be on Wall Street, kid. What are you doing here?" A precise route runner with soft hands, Johnson missed all of last season with a fractured collarbone but with the line in tatters and wideout Brandon Lloyd struggling to develop as a consistent deep threat, the Niners have gone to shorter drops and emphasized the intermediate passing game.
"You want to break out of that stereotype that Ivy Leaguers can't play in the NFL," says Johnson. "I wasn't recruited by the big schools coming out of high school [in Needham, Mass.], but it was great that I went to Yale. If I'd gone to a school like Miami, I never would have played."
Running his final draft as San Francisco's general manager in 2001, Bill Walsh pushed for the team to take Johnson, though he wasn't getting much support from anyone else in the room. Johnson, it turned out, would be Walsh's final draft pick for the organization. "It's such an honor," Johnson says, "to be the last pick by a legend."