Stevie Johnson started out as a lovable overachiever. Then he became one of Buffalo’s most polarizing athletes.
Johnson’s turbulent ride with the Buffalo Bills ended Friday afternoon. They traded him to the San Francisco 49ers.
The Bills received a 2015 fourth-round draft choice that can improve to a third-round pick if Johnson meets certain production criteria. Those thresholds aren’t yet known.
The Bills discarded Johnson about 18 hours after they traded up to draft Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins fourth overall Thursday night.
At least one of Johnson’s former teammates was surprised to see him go.
“I didn’t see that move coming, but I’m not paid to make those decisions,” Bills running back C.J. Spiller said from his home in Lake Butler, Fla. “I’m paid to go out there and keep the offense on the field and help us win games.
“Any time you lose a guy like Stevie, it hurts. But we understand that this is a business.”
As much as Johnson brought to the offense, it’s clear Bills General Manager Doug Whaley and coach Doug Marrone didn’t view him as favorably as Johnson’s fans.
Johnson exasperated previous Bills coach Chan Gailey with slapstick end-zone antics that resulted in penalties and fines. Gailey benched Johnson in the 2011 season finale after a touchdown celebration violated the coach’s edict to not get penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Locker-room sources have told The Buffalo News that Johnson’s act wore thin on Marrone, too.
Spiller disputed that notion from his perspective.
“The past four years I’ve played with Stevie, he’s been nothing but very professional,” Spiller said. “He was a hard worker, even though people on the outside didn’t see that. He was serious about his craft. He wanted to win. He was determined to help his team win.”
The Bills aren’t up against the salary cap. They didn’t need to dump Johnson’s contract.
The Bills apparently preferred a 2015 mid-round draft pick and having Johnson out of their program over the experience or production he could offer.
“Stevie was a great contributor during his career with our organization,” Whaley said in a statement. Friday’s “decision was not an easy one to make, especially involving a player like Stevie, who leaves everything he has on the field and is an emotional leader in our locker room.
“All of the decisions we make are done so in the best interest of our team.”
The Bills have a crowded depth chart at receiver, but Johnson provided experience. The Bills’ most experienced receiver returning from last year is T.J. Graham, who has played 31 games and has started 18 times in two NFL seasons.
The Bills last month sent a sixth-round draft choice to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for fifth-year pro Mike Williams, but the oft-troubled veteran from Riverside High provides no guarantees. One more off-field transgression and Williams could get suspended or released.
A source close to Johnson called the trade bittersweet. To get traded for a mid-round pick is humbling, but he went to his hometown team. Johnson grew up in the Hunter’s Point section of San Francisco. He learned how to drive in the parking lots that surrounded Candlestick Park.
Johnson also will get to play for a legitimate contender. The 49ers reached the Super Bowl two seasons ago and have played in two straight NFC Championship Games.
Johnson could not be reached to comment. He tweeted: “I would never trade my time w/ @buffalobills. They’ve blessed me & my fam since day 1. Thank you BUFFALO!!”
Johnson, a seventh-round draft choice in 2008, is entering his seventh NFL season. He became the first Bills receiver to post consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and made it three in a row in 2012.
Over those three seasons he averaged 79 receptions for 1,041 yards and eight touchdowns.
But his 2013 campaign was miserable. He struggled with back, hip and groin injuries. His mother’s death caused him to miss the Bills’ last two games. He caught 52 passes for only 597 yards and three touchdowns in 10 games.
“He’s a receiver that’s hard to cover,” Spiller said. “He makes some of the so-called-best defensive backs in the league look silly.
“He’ll definitely be missed in Buffalo, but it’s a chance for somebody else in that receivers room to step up. Those are huge shoes to fill, but we’ll see who wants to take that role now.”
Johnson has three years left on his contract with base salaries of $3.65 million this year, $5.5 million for 2015 and $5.85 million for 2016. His roster bonus this year was $1.75 million, which the Bills paid in April.
Johnson’s salary-cap number for this year was $8.5 million. Amortized bonus money Johnson already has received from the five-year, $36.2 million contract extension he signed in 2012 must be rolled into a dead-money cap hit of $10.225 million.
Whaley indicated the Bills will eat that dead-money total this year, but he said the Bills will discuss the option that allows them push the last two year’s of Johnson’s amortized bonuses into next year.
If they break up the money, then that would reduce the Bills’ cap hit to $4.6 million this year but leave nearly $6 million next year.