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49ers Bolster Defense on Day 3

Posted Apr 28, 2012

By returning all 11 starters from last year’s steamrolling defense, the 49ers ensured they will be one of the NFL’s most feared units in 2012. On Saturday, the team bolstered its depth by adding a trio of late-round defensive picks who are expected to make a push for the 53-man roster in the fall.

In the fifth round, the 49ers selected Notre Dame linebacker Darius Fleming, before drafting Michigan State safety Trenton Robinson in the sixth round and taking Virginia linebacker Cam Johnson with their seventh-round pick.

Following his second draft, San Francisco head coach Jim Harbaugh sounded confident in the job done by general manager Trent Baalke and his staff.

“There was a real organization and hum upstairs,” Harbaugh said.

For Fleming, the transition to the NFL will be made easier by second-year 49ers defensive tackle Ian Williams, as the two were college roommates. In fact, Williams was just in South Bend, Ind., a couple of weeks ago to watch the Fightin’ Irish spring game and catch up with Fleming. Much like Williams, who voiced his pleasure via Twitter during the draft, Fleming is looking forward to a reunion with his college teammate and friend.

“I’m sure he’s just as excited as I am for this opportunity,” Fleming said. “Honestly, that’ll probably be my roommate. I’m just excited about everything and being a 49er now especially because one of my guys is up there.”

Fleming is listed at 6-foot-2, 245 pounds and said he figures to be a situational pass-rushing linebacker as he settles into the NFL. Johnson, who played defensive end at Virginia, also figures to be an outside linebacker in coordinator Vic Fangio’s defensive scheme.

“We rolled the dice last year with only three outside linebackers,” Harbaugh said, referring to Ahmad Brooks, Parys Haralson and Aldon Smith. “It worked, but that is risky what we did last year. Both of those youngsters will be competitive and have tremendous upside. Looking forward to that.”

Despite being rated with a better grade by many draft prognosticators, Johnson fell to the seventh round. The 6-foot-3, 268-pound pass-rusher has experience playing outside linebacker in a 3-4 system, as he worked at the position for two years under former coach Al Groh.

The 49ers showed interest in Johnson throughout the pre-draft process, as they talked to him on the phone on multiple occasions and met with him at the Senior Bowl.  Baalke also made a trip to the East Coast to see Johnson play in person.

“He’s a guy that believed he should have been a much higher pick,” Baalke said. “For whatever reason teams passed him over, and you like that. You like that about guys, come in here feeling that they were looked past and have a chip on their shoulder and are ready to compete for a position.”

As for Robinson, the talented defensive back was voted a Michigan State team captain by his teammates in 2012, along with fellow draft pick Kirk Cousins. Robinson called the honor one of the “greatest moments in his life.”

Robinson checks into the NFL a bit undersized for a safety, as he measured at 5-foot-10, 195 pounds. The small stature may have played a role in Robinson’s late selection (No. 180 overall), but it hasn’t hurt his confidence.

“If you watch my film and watch how I play and watch the way I move around to the ball,” Robinson said, “you can see that my size really doesn’t affect the way that I play the game.”

During his four-year career at Michigan State, Robinson never lost to Michigan, Harbaugh’s Alma mater. But Robinson doesn’t sound like he’ll be ribbing his new coach about collegiate bragging rights once he comes to California.

“College is over right now, so I’m very excited, just upbeat,” Robinson said. “Just a fellow Big Ten player to be able to play with and get coached by, and he does a great job. What he’s done with that team in the last year is just unreal.”

Unlike last year, Harbaugh will have a full offseason to be around his mighty men who roam the field on Sundays. With the lockout condensing the offseason into an abbreviated whirlwind last year, Harbaugh could only sit around and wait until interacting with his guys.

Aside from the players added through the draft and free agency already, the 49ers are also hard at work signing undrafted rookie free agents. Within minutes of the draft’s conclusion, Harbaugh said the team was already working the phones and is close to filling its 90-man roster.

Crowded as the locker room may be, Harbaugh is looking forward to training camp and the 2012 season.

“It got real -- I don’t know what the word is – but stale last year without the players in the building, month after month after month,” Harbaugh said. “There’s just a lot more juice around here.”

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