Another reason why the 49ers only have gently dipped their big toe into the free-agency pool this offseason? In addition to their 14-pick haul in the upcoming draft, there are five players from last year's class who either were very lightly utilized or not utilized at all during their rookie campaigns.
Outside linebacker Darius Fleming, for example, tore his ACL just a few minutes into the team's first minicamp last May. "I just cut wrong," Fleming said Tuesday. "My foot went one way and my leg went the other way."
Fleming, a fifth-round selection from Notre Dame, sat out the 2012 season as a result. The experience, he said, made him hungrier to make his mark this year. "Me and Cam (Johnson) talk about it all the time," he said. "We began looking forward to this coming preseason and this (training) camp since the middle of last season. We're looking forward to being able to play together."
Not every player who suffers a season-ending injury in the spring decides to stay at the team facility all season. Fleming did just that, working out daily with strength coach Mark Uyeyama and fellow outside linebacker Parys Haralson, who tore his triceps in August. A silver lining to his injury, Fleming said, is that he was able to spend a lot of time next to Haralson - both in rehab and on the sideline during games - and that he picked up plenty of tips from the veteran linebacker.
Fleming is a little more than a month removed from the one-year anniversary of his injury, and he said his knee felt as if it was back to normal. He's back in Santa Clara and is part of a workout group that includes other young guns, like Johnson, safety Trenton Robinson and nose tackle Ian Williams, who are eager to find a role on the team this year.
"We're all good players," Fleming said. "We're excited to prove it."
Belated members of 2012
A.J. Jenkins. WR, 1st-round. Jenkins hardly got on the field as a rookie even after injuries thinned the 49ers' receiving corps late in the season. He finished with no catches and must dedicate himself toward getting stronger and more confident this offseason. To that end, Jenkins currently is training with workout-fiend Colin Kaepernick in Atlanta. The 49ers maintain they are still confident that Jenkins will make an impact. The question is whether that confidence is is high enough to keep them from drafting a receiver next month. Another reason to draft a wideout: At this point, Anquan Boldin, Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams are signed only though 2013.
Joe Looney. G/C, 4th round. Looney suffered a Lisfranc foot injury at the 2012 Senior Bowl, and the 49ers knew he was unlikely to play that season. He's back at full strength, and the 49ers are eager to see him in action at both guard and center. The 49ers aren't interested in re-signing veteran lineman Leonard Davis, a free agent, because they want to find out what they have in young reserves like Looney and 2011 draft pick Daniel Kilgore. It would be surprising if the 49ers took an offensive lineman - especially an interior lineman - early in the draft.
Darius Fleming. OLB, 5th round. He hasn't played a snap since his senior season at Notre Dame. The 49ers are unlikely to re-sign veteran Clark Haggans, a free agent, because Parys Haralson is back from a triceps injury and because they want to give Fleming and Cam Johnson a chance to play. Both must prove themselves on special teams in order to make the squad.
Trenton Robinson. S, 6th round. Dashon Goldson's departure at free safety gives Robinson an opportunity. He'll be thrown into a mix that also includes newly-signed free agent Craig Dahl and perhaps a high draft pick. Robinson played 25 snaps last season, all of them on special teams.
Cam Johnson. OLB, 7th round. Johnson flashed hot and cold at the University of Virginia during his senior year. Before his rookie season began, Johnson had a procedure to clean up his knee. He spent most of the year on the practice squad and ended up playing 11 defensive snaps at year's end. Johnson has the size and strength the 49ers like at the position but needs to convince the team he can be consistent.
- Matt Barrows