Should he stay or should he go? Manny Lawson

After missing several offseason team functions last year, Manny Lawson appeared at a mandatory spring minicamp and made it clear he wanted a new contract with the 49ers. He didn't get it, and his performance during his 2010 contract season makes Lawson a tough call for the 49ers in free agency. Should the team make an effort to bring him back or let him go? NinersDigest takes a look at both sides.

Lawson had the best season of his career in 2009, showing the promise that convinced the 49ers to trade up in the 2006 draft to select him with a first-round pick. After that breakout season concluded, Lawson watched as the Niners extended the contracts of other young core veterans the team feels are key to its future.

No doubt feeling he should be considered part of that group, Lawson made a statement during the 2010 offseason by missing several team activities and voluntary workouts. Entering the final year of his $7.5 million rookie contract with the team, Lawson stayed away until finally showing up at 49ers headquarters on June 17 for a mandatory minicamp.

He then delivered a message that everybody knew was coming, expressing a sentiment that remained tagged to him throughout the season.

"I would like a new contract," Lawson said then. "I want to be here. I want to be a San Francisco 49er. But everybody wants a new contract, and I'm about everybody getting what they deserve."

Lawson will definitely get his if he becomes an unrestricted free agent once a new CBA is reached and the NFL lockout ends. The big question is whether the 49ers will be the team giving it to him.

Playing for a new contract last year, Lawson had an underwhelming season despite starting all 16 games. He finished ninth on the team with 64 tackles to go with just 2.5 sacks, which ranked sixth on the team.

Those numbers paled in comparison to Lawson's career-high totals of 78 tackles and a team-leading 6.5 sacks in 2009, when he also tied a team record with four forced fumbles to go with one fumble recovery.

Lawson delivered as a playmaker that season after injuries had sidetracked his development during his first three seasons. But with plenty to gain last season, Lawson did not take the next step as a playmaker, and he found himself in a rotation with reserves Ahmad Brooks and Travis LaBoy on pass-rushing downs. Despite playing fewer downs, Brooks and LaBoy each doubled Lawson's final sack total.

With 14.5 career sacks after five seasons, it's fair to say Lawson hasn't become the pass-rushing force from the edge that the 49ers expected when they acquired him with the No. 22 overall selection in 2006.

But that's not to say Lawson hasn't been an effective player.

He's an individual that possesses a unique set of skills, and he has the speed and range to chase down plays from sideline to sideline. That talent certainly still gives him value to the 49ers in their 3-4 defensive scheme, but he may have even more value to other teams that could fit his versatility into their systems.

The telling factor for Lawson and the 49ers probably revolves around whether new CBA rules will make the five-year veteran an unrestricted free agent or a restricted free agent.

Lawson is much more likely to remain with the team if the latter turns out to be the case. According to the latest rankings, Lawson rates as one of the top outside linebackers in free agency, up there with the likes of LaMarr Woodley, Tamba Hali, Chad Greenway and Kamerion Wimbley. That suggests Lawson is in line for a substantial payday if he hits the open market, particularly since the other four were tagged as franchise players by their respective teams.

The Lawson breakdown

Age: Turned 27 on July 3

2010 performance: Started all 16 games for second consecutive season, finishing ninth on team with 64 tackles and sixth with 2.5 sacks. Was fourth on team with 31 quarterback pressures and sixth with 16 QB hits. Also had one interception, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery.

2010 season grade: C-plus

Why he's worth keeping: Lawson is a versatile player who possesses a unique set of skills that makes him effective in a wide variety of situations. He has added strength, power and muscle since entering the NFL and has the makeup to be a more effective pass rusher than he has displayed so far in his career. He could still fit in nicely as a productive performer in the 3-4 system brought to the 49ers by new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio.

Why he's not worth keeping: Strong-side linebacker is a premier pass-rushing position in a 3-4 scheme, and Lawson simply hasn't provided the consistent heat on QBs that the 49ers need from that important role in their defense. The 49ers used the No. 7 overall pick in the 2011 draft on youngster Aldon Smith to plug into that position, immediately making Lawson expendable. Lawson also might command a price on the open market that simply won't be worth paying for the 49ers, particularly since they now have Smith and others that can fill in at the position.

Where he would fit with the 2011 49ers: If he returns, Lawson probably would return as the starter at strong-side (left) outside linebacker, giving Smith time to learn the role and transition to OLB from his college position of defensive end. Lawson would be given every opportunity to prove he deserves to be a three-down player in San Francisco's defensive system.

How he would be replaced: Smith would be given a cram course at the position while also being given every opportunity to start as a rookie. Veteran Ahmad Brooks also could be given a shot as the starter if Smith isn't ready, and Brooks and perhaps youngster Thaddeus Gibson would at least be given opportunities to rotate in at the position. Bringing back veteran Travis LaBoy to add to the mix also is a possibility. If Lawson doesn't return, it's unlikely the 49ers would look to spend significant money in free agency to replace him.

Market interest level: High. He hasn't been the pass rusher the 49ers need him to be, but Lawson has established himself as a NFL commodity. Since four of the other top potential FA OLBs have been franchised by their respective teams, Lawson could be the top OLB available in free agency this year if he becomes unrestricted.

49ers interest level: Guarded. Certainly, the 49ers would like Lawson back at the right price. But they have prepared themselves for his departure. The 49ers would be highly interested in bringing back Lawson on a one-year tender offer if he remains a restricted free agent after the lockout.

The verdict

Lawson was tendered as a restricted free agent before the lockout according to 2010 rules, and the 49ers should take the necessary measures to ensure he returns in 2011 on a one-year tender if he remains restricted after a new CBA is reached. It's difficult to suggest the 49ers shouldn't make a strong push to keep a talented and established veteran who was raised in their system and is entering the prime of his career. But if Lawson does become unrestricted and gets the big-money offers that are expected to come his way in that scenario, the 49ers should let him go, because Lawson surely will be looking for the kind of money the Niners shouldn't match, and the team already has invested in Smith to be the future at the position Lawson currently plays.

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