In the first round of the draft, the 49ers selected Jimmie Ward, a safety-cornerback hybrid. Then, in the fourth round, the Niners did the same thing, selecting Dontae Johnson, who started five games at cornerback and seven games at free safety his final season at North Carolina State.
Clearly, the 49ers are putting together a defensive roster with an eye toward playing more press coverage with larger, more versatile defensive backs in 2014 and beyond.
While Ward is expected to get the chance to compete right away for the job at nickel/slot cornerback, it will be interesting to see how Johnson fits in. As of now, Johnson says 49ers coaches have told him they’re looking at him as a cornerback rather than a safety.
Johnson is 6-2 and 200 pounds, ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds and did 38.5 inches in the vertical leap – all good scores.
But he also brings intelligence and a reputation as a straight arrow and hard worker, meaning the 49ers may see him as a player who can come in, learn, contribute quickly and provide leadership. Johnson was recruited by 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh to Stanford when Harbaugh was head coach of the Cardinal, but Johnson decided to stay closer to his New Jersey roots to play at N.C. State, according to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. Johnson went on to graduate with a double major at N.C. State, in sports management and business administration.
As a senior, Johnson had three interceptions and eight passes defensed.
Said 49ers general manager Trent Baalke: “Very smart football player and an A-plus character guy.”
It’s a crowded group at cornerback with Tramaine Brock, Chris Culliver, Eric Wright, Perrish Cox, Chris Cook, Darryl Morris and Ward. But Johnson’s size could give him an edge – especially if he picks up things quickly. His size is similar to that of Richard Sherman, the Seahawks’ All-Pro corner and Stanford grad. But when Johnson was compared to Sherman, he declined to go in that direction.
“Hopefully I can be half the man he was and bring that work ethic to practice, to film room, the weight room, to compete,” he told Bay Area reporters. “I’m not Richard Sherman. I’m Dontae Johnson. I hope to build my name through my work ethic.”