Yesterday, Martin from Blogger So Dear gave us a scouting report on Wake Forest offensive guard Joe Looney. That followed our LaMichael James scouting report last week. Today, we're moving on to Notre Dame outside linebacker Darius Fleming.
The 49ers made it through the 2011 season with only three outside linebackers. They managed to avoid injuries and got strong production from their limited rotation. They added Fleming and Cam Johnson, with both looking to contribute on special teams while learning the technique of NFL pass rushers.
I mentioned yesterday how the right guard position would be the most intriguing of training camp. While that is a bigger deal because it involves a starting position, the battle for playing time behind Ahmad Brooks and Aldon Smith will be interesting.
Big thanks to Alstein from One Foot Down for putting together this write-up.
Darius Fleming was a regular contributor throughout his career at Notre Dame, appearing in all but two games over his four years and starting in 36 of them. The Chicago native was used primarily as an outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme his junior and senior seasons with experience in both two and three-point stances. Fleming started every game those two seasons for what was generally considered a top-30 defense nationally. Before the regime change from Charlie Weis to Brian Kelly, Fleming was used as an outside linebacker in both 3-4 and 4-3 defenses, as well as a defensive end in a 4-3 before settling into his role as the "Cat" linebacker for Diaco.
Throughout his Irish career, Fleming amassed 157 tackles, 32 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks, and 2 interceptions. He led the Irish in tackles for loss his sophomore and junior seasons and in sacks his junior year. His senior year numbers do not jump off the page, compiling 3.5 sacks, 7 tackles for loss, and 1interception, while finishing fifth on the team with 55 tackles. After being touted by head coach Brian Kelly as "one of the more explosive players in the country" before the 2011 season, many Irish fans expected more productivity from Fleming.
That said, Fleming's best attribute is not captured in the stat books. Fleming's strength at first contact and assignment discipline made him incredibly effective at setting the edge on his side of the line of scrimmage. If you have tape of a ball carrier getting outside of Fleming, I'd love to see it. He fought hard to control positioning with offensive linemen that outweighed him by 50 pounds and showed the ability to disengage and make plays in space. He is a prototypical high motor guy who plays to the whistle and pursues all the way to the sideline.
Fleming was generally graded as a late-round draftee or free agent coming out of his senior season but moved up following an impressive Pro Day in South Bend in April. While generally considered to lack top end speed, Fleming ran two sub-4.6 40s at the Pro Day, making him one of the fastest two or three linebackers in the entire draft. This improved his grade considerably, answering questions abou this speed and making him a more enticing pass rushing prospect. Fleming often looked lost in pass coverage, so it is unlikely that his speed will be utilized in that capacity at the next level. However, the work he has put in this offseason to improve his speed should serve him well as a pass rusher and make him a nuisance for NFL tackles.
Fleming does not come to San Francisco with an impressive pass rushing repertoire, failing to master any of the typical techniques you would see out of top pass rushers around the league, let alone show an ability to counter with or vary those moves. Still, he is very strong off the snap and a cerebral player at the line of scrimmage, so if the 49ers coaching staff can develop his pass rush technique, Fleming can provide valuable depth to NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Aldon Smith. He is more likely to contribute early as a special teams player and perhaps give Smith some breathers in non-pass rush sets, as that role fits Fleming's skill set at this point. He may also compliment Smith by spelling Ahmad Brooks on the other side in pass-rush situations. It is conceivable that he could soon make the more expensive Parys Haralson expendable if he becomes a suitable backup to both Smith and Brooks.
Fleming is in a great situation with the 49ers and has an opportunity to contribute early and learn from some of the best coaches and players at his position in the game. Simply put, Jim Harbaugh and SanFrancisco provide an ideal fit for Fleming, where he will bring some much-needed depth behind an impressive starting tandem. He is a high character, hard-working, intelligent individual with a perfect opportunity to grow into a quality NFL outside linebacker for the 49ers.