Going into the 2012 NFL Draft, the 49ers knew at some point they had to add a pass rusher or two to help Aldon Smith and the occasional appearances by Ahmad Brooks. San Francisco added depth to their linebacking corps with two pass rushers that will likely be outside linebackers at the next level.
In the 5th and 7th rounds, the 49ers added Notre Dame's Darius Fleming and Virginia's Cam Johnson. For a front office that "reached" and found Aldon Smith in round one last year and found diamonds in the rough like Ian Williams and DeMarcus Dobbs, 49ers fans can get excited about the potential of both Fleming and Johnson.
The 6'2, 245-pound Notre Dame product was one of the best of the strong Irish linebacking group. While in college, Fleming showed very good burst off the line. He excels as a pass rusher, and can play standing up or with his hand in the ground.
He is a smooth pass rusher around the edge. Even with his large build, he is able to bend at the knees and get low. Fleming has great balance and always keeps his feet moving, constantly progressing toward the quarterback.
He often showed his ability to keep plays inside, and was very good setting the edge. It's a trait of his as a player that should translate well to the next level -- especially in the 49ers 3-4 scheme where they layup tackles for each other. With his big frame and broad shoulders, Fleming was able to continuously keep plays inside.
Whether it was containing the run or closing the pocket around the quarterback, that was clearly Fleming's game.
The 49ers selected him because they believe he has real value as a rusher in this league. He will fit in as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and in his first year could be a contributing situational pass rusher on passing downs. Like the other Niner linebackers, Fleming is extremely aggressive at the point of attack.
He reminds me of Ahmad Brooks in that he has similar qualities.
Cam Johnson, Virginia - 237th overall
Virginia's Cam Johnson had a good college career, with experience as both a standup outside linebacker and a 4-3 defensive end. At 6'3 1/2, 268-pounds, Johnson was primarily used as a pass rusher who rarely dropped back into coverage. He began his career at Virginia as an outside linebacker but transitioned into a defensive end toward the end when it became clear that he excelled as a rusher.
Johnson was good at finding or creating lanes to the quarterback. He doesn't have very good top end speed and will be most valuable in the trenches causing disruption. He is occasionally sloppy in his pursuit, where sometimes his legs and arms are totally out of sync and don't look to be accomplishing anything.
Physically he has strong potential, but his technique will need improvement going forward. I think the 49ers coaching staff between Jim Tomsula and Jim Leavitt will have no problem.
Johnson usually focused on keeping the play contained and proved he could close the pocket on a quarterback. He does need to get better at keeping the play in front of him and not over-pursuing though. But more often than not, he was able to force the QB to step up in the pocket on passing plays.
The 49ers like Johnson because they see "QB pressures" in his future, and eventually sacks. He has experience and success stunting inside, which is something they had Aldon Smith doing in his first year. Smith had a lot of success with it and hopefully Johnson can find his own in year one.
He is an engage-and-disengage type of defenseman in that he will take on a blocker, keep him occupied and then shed him the moment before he is ready to make the tackle. Johnson projects to be an outside linebacker but can also fill a role opposite Aldon Smith when the 49ers are using four down lineman in their nickel package.
The reason for both of these picks was that they provide depth at the linebacking position, while there is a chance that they could find early success as situational pass rushers and special teams players. I think some time on special teams will do them good in their first year. They will grow to be humble and take on the 49ers blue collar mentality, while also becoming sound tacklers and improve their technique.
The staff will put them in positions to succeed like they did with a lot of their rookies last year. And only time will tell if either of them could grow into more prominent roles in the future. However the chips fall, I could see one, if not both of them playing a role in 2012 where 49ers fans learn their names.
Follow me on Twitter: @DeSimone80