Should he stay or should he go? Takeo Spikes

If we're getting closer to real football now that it's July, then we're also getting closer to free agency. With that in mind, NinersDigest takes 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 ILB Takeo Spikes.

There is no reason for anybody to wonder if Takeo Spikes still has the fire as he enters his 14th year in the NFL.

After enjoying one of the better seasons of his distinguished career with the 49ers in 2010, the two-time Pro Bowler isn't even considering slowing down at age 34.

"I want to play until I get that ring," Spikes told us in an interview last December. "I'm playing some of my best ball right now. I started getting in a groove (in October) and feel like I progressed and took it to another level."

Spikes took that performance surge into the offseason, making him attractive this year as a free agent to both the 49ers and other teams, despite his advancing age and the wear and tear Spikes has absorbed while making 1,519 tackles in 187 NFL games, 183 of them starts.

Spikes probably would mean more to the 49ers than any other team that might have interest in his services. He has been an integral part of the San Francisco defense since joining the team in 2008, recording 342 tackles, six interceptions and five sacks in 44 starts while providing an ideal veteran complement to All-Pro star Patrick Willis in the middle of San Francisco's 3-4 defense.

Spikes' consistently high level of play last season made him and Willis arguably the best pair of inside linebackers in the NFC, if not the NFL. Not only has he been a mentor to Willis, but he also has been one of the most visible and vocal leaders on the team while also serving as San Francisco's player representative. Spikes' standing amongst the team was illustrated near the end of last season when he received the Len Eshmont Award, the 49ers' most prestigious individual honor as voted on by teammates.

And as Spikes said, he has plenty of motivation to keep playing and remain top-notch. Despite all he's accomplished in the NFL, Spikes has yet to appear in a playoff game. He thought last season finally would be the year, and he was one of the most visibly disappointed players on the team when the 49ers – preseason NFC West favorites – fell short of that goal during a 6-10 season, their worst record since Spikes joined the squad.

But Spikes still wants to continue – and perhaps end – his career in San Francisco. When asked two weeks ago on his Twitter account what was the chance of him being back in San Francisco this season, Spikes responded, "very good one."

All things considered, the 49ers should like the sound of that.

The Spikes breakdown

Age: 34

2010 performance: Held off an early-season challenge for his starting position from rookie third-round draft pick NaVorro Bowman, then went on to have one of the best seasons of his career, finishing second on the team with 125 tackles – his high in three years with the 49ers – while also tying for the team lead with three interceptions. Had a second-half surge that saw Spikes record 10 or more tackles in four of San Francisco's final seven games, including a career-high 18 against Green Bay in Week 13. Also played a significant role as a vocal veteran team leader and was voted by teammates as the winner of the prestigious Len Eshmont Award at the end of the season.

2010 season grade: B-plus

Why he's worth keeping: Spikes is a player looked up to by his 49ers teammates, and it's easy to understand why. He leads by example, and his performance speaks for itself. He has not slowed down one bit in three seasons with the Niners, and he was one of their most consistent defensive players last season. His leadership, experience and ability to still perform at a high level all speak to Spikes' worth, and San Francisco's 3-4 defensive system is ideal for his skills and style of play.

Why he's not worth keeping: The 49ers have Bowman waiting in the wings and ostensibly are grooming him to be Willis' future partner. Scott McKillop, a 2009 fifth-round draft choice, appears to be at full strength now after missing last season with a knee injury, and he also could be a factor next to Willis and in the linebacker rotation. Spikes turns 35 in December and has a lot of wear and tear on his tires, meaning a decline in performance might be inevitable.

Where he would fit with the 2011 49ers: Spikes would enter training camp as the presumptive starter at MIKE inside linebacker next to Willis in San Francisco's 3-4 system, but he could face an open-competition challenge for the starting position from Bowman from the get-go in training camp.

How he would be replaced: If Spikes does not return, the 49ers would likely give Bowman a shot as the full-time starter, whether he is ready or not. McKillop also could be a factor at the position, though the Niners likely would bring in a veteran free agent as insurance at the position behind the youngsters.

Market interest level: Modest. Spikes had to wait until August 10 to sign with the 49ers in 2008 when he was a 31-year-old free agent, so it's likely any team that would be interested in the aging veteran would wait until after training camp begins to assess its needs at linebacker before signing Spikes, meaning the 49ers should have first crack at him.

49ers interest level: High. Even though this team is young and Spikes isn't, he fits with the 49ers. Spikes is a significant member of the team both on the field and in the locker room, and he figures to make a key contribution in 2011 whether he holds onto his starting position or not. Spikes probably holds more value to the 49ers than he would to any other NFL team.

The verdict

Particularly since the lockout has ruined so many plans of developing a team over the course of the offseason – especially for a team with a new coaching staff like San Francisco – the 49ers need a player and individual such as Spikes who brings his experience and knowledge of the system and also an ability to perform at a high level. Spikes has never been on a playoff team, but he's a winner, and the 49ers need as many of those types as they can get as they attempt to become winners as a team again. Spikes should stay, and the 49ers should make every reasonable attempt to make that happen, particularly since it's unlikely they will have to overpay to retain his services. A nifty two-year deal based on past performance and market value seems in order here.

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