JACKSON, Miss (AP) -As versatile as the New Orleans Saints' NFL-leading offense was last season, their tight ends saw relatively few throws from quarterback Drew Brees.
Over the winter, the Saints' most significant free-agent acquisition on offense was Eric Johnson, who, when healthy, was among San Francisco's most productive receivers.
``He's someone that when you study his career, and he's played and stayed healthy, he's been a real talented receiving tight end,'' coach Sean Payton said. ``He's someone who has good hands, good instincts, and he has a good feel for the passing game. He's from a similar system, so there was a good fit there.''
Johnson, who played the last six years with the 49ers, missed three games last season because of a strained knee and finished 2006 with 34 catches for 292 yards and two touchdowns.
He also missed two of the last four seasons with a broken collarbone in 2003 and a torn foot muscle in 2005. In 2004, however, Johnson had a team-leading 82 catches for 825 yards, including a pair of touchdowns.
Johnson played wide receiver in high school in the Boston suburb of Needham and later at Yale before being converted to tight end in the NFL.
Perhaps more than anyone, the late Bill Walsh saw Johnson's potential to be successful in the NFL. Johnson had been noticed by scouts, especially after he caught 21 passes in a victory over Harvard that helped Yale clinch an Ivy League title. Still, no teams seemed willing to draft him except San Francisco, which, on Walsh's recommendation, took him in seventh round.
Johnson was 6-foot-3, 230 pounds when he was drafted and bulked up by 20 pounds so he could play tight end.
He had much to learn, from things as simple as getting down in a three-point stance to more complicated blocking schemes and techniques.
``Learning what everyone on the line was doing, I didn't pay much attention to that when I was a receiver,'' he said.
Maybe being an Ivy Leaguer had something to do with it, but he was a quick study and ended up starting 15 games in his rookie season.
``It was that NFL experience right away. It made me improve so much,'' Johnson recalled. ``They had an offense that used the tight end a lot, so I never felt like I was lacking in my chances to get the ball.''
Payton often talks of his fondness for ``smart'' players, so Johnson's educational background makes him a good fit.
Johnson said being a Yale graduate brought some interesting smack talk his way, such as when a New York Jets linebacker told him during a game that he'd be better off on Wall Street than the football field.
``There's just not that many Ivy League guys in the league so they give me a hard time,'' Johnson said. ``I'm still proud I went to Yale and got to the NFL, but definitely in (the corporate world) I'd get less harassment for it.''
Brees, who had extraordinary success with tight end Antonio Gates in San Diego, connected with Johnson on two of his 12 completions in last Friday night's preseason game. During training camp, he's looked for Johnson when the team practices plays near the end zone, and Johnson is rarely dropping balls.
``He's really hitting a comfort zone,'' Brees said. ``He's going to add a great element to what we're doing here offensively.
``I've always had some pretty good tight ends to throw to going back to the San Diego days. I think that's always been at the top of my mind,'' Brees said. ``Usually your tight end is one guy who is matched up one-on-one. It's hard to double the tight end because there are so many other guys. ... It's exciting to know when you get down to the red zone. There is definitely traffic down there, but when you trust a guy's ability to catch the ball, you'll throw it in there.''
As a free agent, Johnson liked the idea of playing in New Orleans because of the type of free-wheeling, pass-oriented offense Payton runs. And because the Saints are sending players like Marques Colston, Devery Henderson and Reggie Bush out on pass routes downfield, Johnson does not expect opposing defenses will attempt to double-cover him.
``I don't see how they could with the weapons we have on this team,'' Johnson said. ``Drew just finds whoever is open.''
And like a number of his new teammates, Johnson said he also wanted to be part of New Orleans' recovery. He's decided to live downtown, near teammates Scott Fujita and Jeff Faine, among others. He and his wife have become big fans of New Orleans restaurants, he said, mentioning his affection for fried green tomatoes, and crawfish etouffee - which are far less common fare in his New England hometown.
Johnson also was moved by the passion he saw Saints fans show for their team last season.
``They showed so much emotion and it really means a lot to them,'' he said, ``so I think you really can feel like you're playing for the fans and it makes a difference.''

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