Tight end Eric Johnson was downgraded to questionable on the 49ers injury report Thursday when a Magnetic Resonance Imaging exam revealed a bulging disk in his back. Johnson also is suffering from muscle spasms and didn't practice. With the status of receiver J.J. Stokes also still uncertain, the Niners could be missing a few of their top targets for Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals.
If Johnson can't start, the job will go to backup Justin Swift, who has started two games in his three-year career. If Johnson is unable to play, long snapper Brian Jennings becomes the backup tight end. The 49ers have rookie tight end Mark Anelli on their practice squad, but coach Steve Mariucci said he is unlikely to be elevated to the roster because it would necessitate cutting another player.
But it's no laughing matter for the Niners, who are having some significant problems with injuries cutting into their depth. Swift was the team's backup tight end and backup fullback during last week's game at New Orleans because fullback Paul Smith still was out with a pulled hamstring. Smith, who has missed the last four games, may be ready for some duty as an emergency fullback. But if Johnson can play, Swift again will be the backup fullback.
Stokes appears close to returning, but the Niners aren't in any rush to bring him back until he's fully healthy. With Tai Streets playing well as the starter in Stokes' place, and Cedrick Wilson making his first contributions in the passing game as the third receiver, the Niners are considering easing Stokes back into the lineup instead of bringing him back as the starter, as usually is the case with the Niners when a starter is ready to return.
"We have to decide what we'll do with J.J. when he comes back," Mariucci said. "How healthy is he and what role should he play? Should he play 65 snaps or should he play 20? We have to decide, and it's going to depend on how much practice time he gets this week, and how he looks and how he feels."
In other injury news, rookie linebacker Frank Strong underwent surgery Thursday to repair his dislocated right shoulder and is expected to miss six weeks. Mariucci said it's possible the Niners will place Strong on injured reserve, which would end his season. Cornelius Anthony, signed earlier this week, will takes Strong spot at backup linebacker and on special teams.