Should he stay or go? Dashon Goldson

At some point, there actually will be football this year. That means there also will be free agency. With that in mind, NinersDigest will take a look at some of the top veterans on the San Francisco roster scheduled to become free agents after the NFL lockout. Should the 49ers make an effort to bring them back or let them go? We take a look at both sides. Today: The case of safety Dashon Goldson.

Dashon Goldson must have been seeing dollar signs last year as he entered his contract season with the 49ers.

Coming off a breakout 2009 season, his first as a regular NFL starter, Goldson had staked his claim as one of the league's top young safeties. He had earned his place as a playmaker at free safety for a rising San Francisco defense, and great riches awaited if he continued on the same trajectory.

And then, thud. Goldson came back to earth in 2010 with a season that wasn't as good as the year before. That undoubtedly will cost him money when he signs his next contract.

But it might not have cost him that much. Like many players entering their fifth year of NFL service, Goldson still is waiting for a new collective bargaining agreement to determine his status as a free agent. If the guidelines for free agency remain as they were in the past, Goldson becomes an unrestricted free agent. If new rules require veterans to have more than four accrued season to become unrestricted, Goldson will be a restricted free agent.

The 49ers no doubt are hoping for the latter in Goldson's case, because that will make it much easier for the team to sign him to a one-year tender offer and allow San Francisco's new coaching staff to determine if, in their system, Goldson is more like the player on the rise in 2009 or the player that plateaued a bit in 2010.

Goldson, starting all 16 games for the second consecutive season despite being hampered by a series of nagging injuries throughout the year, still had a decent season in 2010 and refused to use his aches and pains as an excuse. He was fourth on the team with 104 tackles and returned his only interception of the season 39 yards for a touchdown, the first TD of his NFL career.

But the 49ers kept waiting most of the season for Goldson to be the playmaker he was in 2009, when Goldson finished second on the team with a career-high 114 tackles to go with a team-high four interceptions and three forced fumbles, two sacks, eight passes defensed and one fumble recovery.

Goldson also struck fear into opponents with a series of crushing hits. Goldson came on strong over the last half of that season, and when it was over, his agent was floating the idea Goldson might be in line for a contract similar to the five-year, $37 million deal Antrel Rolle signed with the New York Giants in 2010.

Goldson is unlikely to get that kind of money on the open market now, from the 49ers or anybody else. But that's not to say he doesn't have value to the 49ers. In fact, Goldson has a lot of value to the team.

Despite his dip in performance, Goldson clearly was San Francisco's best safety last season and arguably the team's best defensive back in what was a poor season for the Niners' secondary.

Goldson had trouble covering up for deficiencies elsewhere in the secondary, particularly at cornerback, as San Francisco finished 24th in the NFL in passing defense while allowing 25 touchdown passes. Goldson was not able to make up for the team's deficits on the edges.

Standout free safeties sometimes can do that. Goldson still has a chance to become one of those. Improved play around Goldson in the secondary, particularly at cornerback, could help him ascend to the next level.

The Goldson breakdown

Age: 26

2010 performance: Ranked fourth on team with 102 tackles to go with five passes defensed, one sack and one interception Goldson returned 39 yards for his first NFL touchdown to spark a Week 14 rout of Seattle. Started each of San Francisco's 16 games for the second consecutive year. Goldson picked up his game toward the end of the season after being hampered by nagging injuries most of the year.

2010 season grade: C

Why he's worth keeping: Goldson is a rangy, hard-hitting free safety whose best years ostensibly still are in front of him. He possesses upside that could transform him into one of the league's better players at the position. He helped set the tone for the San Francisco defense with his aggressive play in 2009, and a return to that form would make him one of the top players on that unit, if not the entire team. The 49ers also don't have anybody to replace Goldson, who might be the team's best defensive back.

Why he's not worth keeping: Goldson is better against the run than he is against the pass and still has trouble recognizing what's coming from a deep center-field perspective. He can be caught out of position and over-pursues, and that means big yardage on broken plays by opponents. If Goldson hits the open market, he might attract a deal for more than he's worth, and the 49ers might be able to spend their money in a more sensible fashion.

Where he would fit with the 2011 49ers: Goldson would remain the team's starting free safety and a young player the 49ers would continue to build around both on defense and in the secondary.

How he would be replaced: The 49ers don't have a sure-fire replacement for Goldson on the roster, though 2010 starting strong safety Reggie Smith and 2010 second-round draft pick Taylor Mays both could be tried at the position. Mays has a lot of talent, and the 49ers would like to get him onto the field, but his deficiencies in coverage last year suggest there's no way the team could count on him to replace Goldson this year. There could be some attractive options in free agency to replace Goldson if the team opts to go in that direction.

Market interest level: Responsive. Goldson is a young player with upside who would bring good things to any team. Having already displayed potential as an impact performer, he will not have trouble finding a job with good pay as an unrestricted free agent.

49ers interest level: High. Goldson is a player the 49ers want to retain, and the team is prepared to go to some lengths to re-sign him. Considering San Francisco's current situation at safety, it would hurt the team to lose him.

The verdict

Goldson doesn't deserve blockbuster-deal money at this stage of his career, but he is clearly a player the 49ers should be willing to open their checkbook to sign. First off, Goldson has shown the potential to be a difference-maker, and the team doesn't have many of those in its secondary. Secondly, he's the best defensive back on the team and the 49ers have nobody on their roster to adequately replace him right away. Losing Goldson would leave a void that the 49ers have to fill. The better option is keeping him and seeing how he fits in new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio's system. If Goldson is a restricted free agent once the NFL lockout ends, it's a no-brainer for the 49ers to make a tender off that will keep him with the team. If he becomes unrestricted, the Niners could allow Goldson to see what he can get on the open market before deciding what they are willing to pay. Or they could strike first with an attractive offer that will keep him from looking elsewhere. Goldson should stay, and the 49ers should do what it takes to make that happen, including paying market value to keep him in San Francisco.

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