PFW suggests Harbaugh remains big Josh Johnson fan

Pro Football Weekly floats a rumor in its “NFC Whispers” column that “word is” that the Niners “could be interested” in trading for Tampa Bay backup quarterback Josh Johnson, Jim Harbaugh’s quarterback for two of his three seasons at the University of San Diego.

That’s not exactly hard evidence. But it’s also not hard to envision such a scenario occurring.

In 2006, Johnson’s junior season at Division I-AA USD, Harbaugh declared that Johnson was the best quarterback in college football. Yes, that included the quarterback who was on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy at Ohio State with 86 percent of the first-place votes. Some guy named Troy Smith.

“I’ve watched Troy Smith play,” Harbaugh told the San Diego Union-Tribune in this Nov. 3, 2006 article. “Our guy’s better.”

More than four years later, Harbaugh is clearly still not a huge Troy Smith fan. The Niners did not place a free-agent tender on Smith earlier this month and have presumably waved bye-bye to the four-year veteran.

In contrast, Harbaugh was one of Johnson’s few fans when he was a 165-pound senior at Oakland Tech in 2003. Playing in a run-first offense dominated by his cousin, Marshawn Lynch, Johnson did not attract Division I interest and signed up with Harabugh, then a first-year coach at non-scholarship USD.

Division I schools became quite interested after Johnson’s sophomore season, but the quarterback repaid Harbaugh’s faith in him by staying in San Diego.

Johnson clearly possesses a few of the qualities Harbaugh desires in his quarterbacks. At last week’s owners’ meeting in New Orleans, he discussed the importance of mobile quarterbacks, saying the ability to make people miss was “critical.”

The 6-foot-3, 205-pound Johnson, 24, had the fastest 40-yard dash (4.44) among quarterbacks at the 2008 NFL Combine and rushed for 726 yards as a senior at USD. He was named MVP of the 2008 East-West Shrine Game after rushing for 103 yards on three attempts. In his three seasons in Tampa Bay, he’s run the option in the Wildcat formation and lined up at wide receiver.

He has yet to showcase the passing prowess he displayed in college when set an NCAA FCS record for passing efficiency (176.68) and threw for 43 touchdowns and one interception as a senior.

In 2009, his second year, Johnson replaced starter Byron Leftwich after Tampa Bay’s 0-3 start, but couldn’t retain the position. He completed 59 of 115 passes for 649 yards with four touchdowns and eight interceptions (51.0 rating) in four losses. He was then replaced by rookie Josh Freeman, who has since emerged as one of the NFL’s top young quarterbacks.

Freeman’s emergence could make Johnson expendable and, with a league-high 12 draft picks, the Niners could presumably make an attractive offer for the former fifth-round pick. Unless the lockout is lifted and the league year begins before the start of the NFL Draft on April 28, however, the 49ers won’t be able to swap draft picks for players.

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