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News, notes and reader questions about the San Francisco 49ers

May 16, 2012
The Fallen: Fleming's injury puts Cam Johnson in the spotlight


Too big and too stiff to play outside linebacker. That was the rap on Cam Johnson entering the draft. Everyone thought the Virginia defensive end had talent. One of the critiques was that at 6-4, 268 pounds, he wasn't the prototypical outside linebackers 3-4 teams were seeking.

The 49ers, however, don't look for prototypical outside linebackers. If you think back to last year, you might recall that there were a lot of positive reviews about Aldon Smith, but that most observers thought he was too linear and too stiff to be an effective linebacker in the NFL.

Indeed, general manager Trent Baalke has intimated that, given the option to take Von Miller, who is a prototypical 3-4 outside linebacker, who won defensive rookie of the year and who was taken No. 3 overall in 2011, he still would have gone with Smith, who was taken seventh overall. That is, Smith and Johnson fit the 49ers' unique mold for outside linebackers.

Johnson wasn't selected until the end of the seventh round. But he's bound to receive a lot more attention this offseason than a typical seventh-round pick given the flashes of ability he showed at Virginia and the recent ACL injury that is likely to end the season for fellow rookie outside linebacker Darius Fleming.

The question is why Johnson, who led the Cavaliers in sacks and tackles for loss the last two years and who had a strong Senior Bowl and combine, fell so far in the draft. Last year, his college coach, Mike London, told reporters that Johnson had shown a trait for sickle cell anemia and suggested that that was sapping his stamina.

Indeed, it was Johnson's inconsistency and tendency to take plays off in 2011 that truly sunk his draft stock. Instead of building on a solid junior season at UVA, Johnson regressed. He started the same number of games - 12 - but his tackles fell from 53 to 30, his sacks went from 6 ½ to four and his tackles behind the line of scrimmage went from 14 ½ to 11.

Reached recently, London backed off his comments about the sickle-cell trait. "I'm quite sure there are players in the NFL right now with that trait," he said. "I'm not a doctor. I don't know."

Instead he pointed to a knee injury that Johnson dealt with during the season. London called it a "bone-on-bone" type of thing. "Some guys would have sat out and probably not practiced," he said. "He never asked to come out."

London was as disappointed as everyone else who coached Johnson that his pupil fell to the seventh round. But he also said that he thought Johnson was an excellent fit in Vic Fangio's 3-4 defense. London coached under Fangio with the Texans in 2005.

He noted that Johnson played outside linebacker in a 3-4 system - rare in the college ranks - as a freshman and sophomore before Virginia switched to a 4-3 and Johnson moved to defensive end.

That, London said, gives Johnson a leg up on most rookies asked to play outside linebacker in an NFL 3-4 scheme. Johnson knows the nuances of the position - for example, dropping into coverage - but also has the bulk and the strength from having played defensive end. That will allow him to set the edge and hold the point on running plays, which are key elements in the 49ers' defense and which lighter-bodied players struggle to do.

The 49ers are hoping that Johnson's draft plunge angers the rookie and sparks the sort of intensity that was missing from his senior season game film. London does, too. "I tell you what. I'd be disappointed if it didn't," he said. "I'd be disappointed if he didn't come in with a chip on his shoulder."

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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