After starring the past four years in Buffalo, Stevie Johnson is starting over in San Francisco this season, after being traded to the 49ers on the second day of the NFL draft in May. The veteran receiver became the first Bill to record consecutive 1,000-yard receiving seasons (he did in three times in a row from 2010-12), but was coming off a down season in 2013 (52 catches for 597 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games) when Buffalo shipped him to San Francisco for a conditional fourth-round pick.
Johnson never made the playoffs in Buffalo, but now joins one of the NFC’s leading Super Bowl contenders, in an offense suddenly loaded with play-makers. SI.com’s Don Banks spoke with Johnson on Sunday afternoon, after the 49ers and Ravens conducted a joint practice at Baltimore’s training facility in Owings Mills, Md.:
SI.com: You’re a San Francisco native playing for the team you grew up watching and rooting for. Has the homecoming been everything you could have hoped for thus far?
Johnson: The 49ers are my hometown team, but at the same time it’s still a job. I can’t sit here and act like it’s a dream come true, because there’s a lot of work involved in making a dream come true. I just know I’ve got to put in some work before I start celebrating.
SI.com: Did you think you might be with Buffalo your whole career, or as soon as the Bills traded up to take Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins at No. 4 in this year’s first round, did you know you’d be moving on?
Johnson: Honestly, I thought I’d be there at least one or two more years. I thought we were building a team. You see them draft a guy, but in that division you try to get as much talent as you can. But the new coaches came in and they did what they did and more power to them. Hopefully they’ll do well, but yeah, I did. I thought I’d be a Buffalo Bill for the rest of my career.
SI.com: You went from being Buffalo’s No. 1 receiver to being more like a No. 3 for the playoff perennial 49ers, behind Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin. Is that personally a tough transition for you to make?
Johnson: I want to say this the right way, but it’s good and bad. Because you go from where you know you’re going to get the ball, (and) you know certain plays are definitely going to come to you. And then you come to a squad where you’re stacked with receivers and maybe you’ll get it this time, but maybe you won’t. So it tests your mental fortitude in this situation, and that’s what I’m at right now. Just trying to make sure I’m ready when that ball is coming my way, because we’ve got four or five No. 1’s out here, but that’s a good thing for us though.
SI.com: Is the upside of that situation having less pressure on you, not being your team’s No. 1 receiving target? Or do you miss the pressure of knowing the ball is coming your way in most key spots?
Johnson: As professionals we all think of ourselves as No. 1’s, so we want that type of pressure. But in this situation with this squad, if you have the opportunity to not have that kind of pressure where everything’s going through you, and you can get some of the load off yourself, then why not? I definitely think that’s good.
SI.com: Buffalo’s quarterback issues were well documented. By comparison, what’s it like now having Colin Kaepernick as your quarterback? You have been quoted saying he has a “cannon’’ for an arm.
Johnson: With No. 7, you know anybody can get the ball at any time. He’s not locked in on one side. It’s great to play with a quarterback like Kaepernick, with that kind of arm.
SI.com: The level of expectation is so different in San Francisco than it is in Buffalo. Is the Super Bowl or bust mindset something you’ve acclimated to?
Johnson: It definitely is, and that’s a good thing. I don’t look at it as pressure or anything we should think twice about. Because as NFL players you want to be in the playoffs. You want to play in the pressure games -- the Super Bowl. And that’s what they expect from you in San Francisco. So all you’ve got to do is play your game and contribute to that goal. They bring you here for a reason, and that’s to make sure your skills are used well and help the team win those games.
SI.com: Have you caught any Sammy Watkins highlights coming out of Bills camp yet?
Johnson: No. I haven’t seen any of their games yet. Is he doing his thing out there? All those guys have talent. Marquise Goodwin, you don’t always hear too much about him, but he can get 1,000 (yards). Robert Woods is a straight baller. He can get 1,000. Sammy (Watkins), he’s a baller, too. They have a bunch of playmakers out there. You just have to get them the ball.
SI.com: After making some early career mistakes in Buffalo, it seems like you matured in recent years and kind of figured things out. Was that the case?
Johnson: That’s how you learn lessons, through failure. Through adversity. I had a lot of it out there, and most of it was me being young, coming into the league at 22, and just being excited and having fun. I did a few things, but I learned from them and matured because of it. And in this part of my career, I can’t really make too much noise until I’m making noise on the field.
SI.com: Your thoughts on the 49ers new Levi’s Stadium?
Johnson: It feels good. It looks good. The turf was great. That one practice we’ve had there, we got adjusted fast. I just can’t wait to see what it looks like when it’s filled with fans. We had a fan night and probably 20,000-some fans came out, so I can just imagine how game days going to be. It’s the Field of Jeans. That’s pretty sweet.
SI.com: The early reviews on you this summer have been pretty good. Do you feel like you’ve had a strong start to camp and the preseason?
Johnson: Nah, not really. I’m still feeling things out some. I’m getting used to not getting the ball every down. The timing still has to be worked on. We’re getting there, but we’re working on our timing and our chemistry. It’s a day-to-day effort. I feel like I’m picking it up and at the end of the day we’ll see what happens when it all comes together.