49ers Draft Picks: Cam Johnson And His Sickle Cell Trait

The 49ers wrapped up their 2012 NFL Draft class with Virginia defensive end Cam Johnson. The former Wahoo will switch over to outside linebacker and get plenty of work in special teams in training camp.

Johnson was actually rated fairly highly by most analysts as far as his talent was concerned. A week ago, Mike Mayock ranked Cam Johnson No. 50 among all players. So why was he a seventh round pick? Well, health issues are prominent due to a sickle cell trait. It is not sickle cell disease or sickle cell anemia. The disease is more serious and involves a mutation of the hemoglobin gene, while Johnson's sickle cell trait produces both abnormal and normal hemoglobin.

The disease has a variety of symptoms and is incredibly serious. The trait is still an issue, but people can go their whole life without exhibiting symptoms. Of course, it is worth noting that individuals with sickle cell trait can potentially exhibit more symptoms during exercise.

Given that Johnson is playing football (just a little bit of exercise involved), this would seem to be a particularly pertinent issue. This issue actually popped up this past season in the NFL with Steelers safety Ryan Clark having a serious health scare. What happened to Clark would qualify as one of the more extreme cases. The writer of that post estimated 90+ players carry the trait. Of course, if that is based on the percentage of the general population, it remains to be seen if that can apply to NFL-specific.

Some folks view this as a particular issue with playing at elevation, which would make playing in Denver an issue. However, Santonio Holmes has the trait as well and has reportedly never had any issues when he has played in Denver. So there are two extremes on this, with a lot of players likely falling somewhere in the middle.

I had a chance to chat with Brian Leung of Streaking the Lawn (our Virginia blog) about some of the issues surrounding Cam Johnson. He had the following to say about Johnson:

It's tough to get a good read on Johnson because of his sickle-cell trait. You'll see him on the field for maybe about four plays before he'd have to get pulled and sit a few plays out on the bench. There have been some reports that he might not have the drive to give 100% at practice, etc., and I can't attest one way or another to that. I can tell you, though, that he's explosive. Those four plays that he's on the field, he'll prove to be fast, with enough football IQ to get a good read on the play. Unfortunately, it's a double-edged sword, right? He'll go fast and hard, but because of his condition, it means you'll have to make due without him for a couple plays while he recharges.

I think he's actually a good fit with the 49ers, given all this. Considering how good the 49ers' linebackers corps is now, I would imagine having someone like Johnson who can come in and ball hard -- even if it's just to give the starters some rest -- would be invaluable. As their last pick in the draft, the 49ers have to consider Cam Johnson to be a steal, and an easy risk for great potential.

Given that the 49ers have their starting outside linebackers in Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith, and a seasoned veteran in Parys Haralson. They added OLB Darius Fleming as well, so there will be competition for backup time. But it will be interesting to see if he is as good as he was graded strictly on talent. It would seem that the sickle cell trait should not be a significant issue, given his projected role. But we'll just have to see how it impacts his practice and playing time during training camp and exhibition games.

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