For the start of training camp on Friday the San Francisco 49ers were facing the prospect of starting the workouts without three of the their seven rookies selected in April’s draft because of injuries. While rookies OLB Darius Fleming and G Joe Looney will not be at training camp, seventh-round pick Cam Johnson showed up on the field on Tuesday. The outside linebacker had what Jim Harbaugh called a “clean-out procedure” in June on his knee.
It has been reported Johnson played his senior year at the University of Virginia with an injury to the same knee he had surgery on in June. Even though it was a minor surgery, there was concern Johnson would not arrive until later in training camp. Don’t let Johnson’s seventh-round draft pick status sour you on the linebacker and his potential. He has great athletic skills and is quick with an explosive first step for someone who is 6’3, 268 pounds. He posted a 4.78 second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. Before April’s draft, NFL.com had Johnson listed as the No. 50 overall best prospect. So why did Johnson slip all the way to the 237th overall pick?
One big reason why is NFL teams didn’t see Johnson fitting naturally into a position on defense. He spent his sophomore season as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 base defense. After a coaching change, he spent the next two seasons at defensive end in a 4-3 base defense. NFL scouts saw him as too big as an outside linebacker and too small as a defensive end.
Another red flag for teams was him being diagnosed with sickle-cell trait, a disorder affecting blood hemoglobin that can cause anemia during extreme physical conditioning. Also not helping Johnson’s draft stock was a quote from his former head coach at University of Virginia, Mike London, who said last year he gets tired easily:
London said he believes there is a correlation between Johnson having sickle cell trait and the player’s dramatically varying degrees of energy on the field. There were times last season when Johnson would be dominant for several plays and then become a non-factor.
“Now it’s the management of him,” London said. “If he’s not an eight-plays-in-a-row, every-down guy, then manage the three or four plays that he plays. Get him out, get him rested and then get him back in there.”
With the 49ers running a 3-4 base defense, Johnson is officially an outside linebacker even though he only played one season at the position in college. This is the better position for him as one of his negatives as a defensive end in college was not being able to handle double teams. At outside linebacker Johnson will mostly avoid double teams when rushing in as the fourth pass rusher. The 49ers are taking a chance on Johnson but with the talents he possess, the risk may turn out to be a positive.