Clements, Lawson never got it done with 49ers

The 49ers traded up into the first round of the 2006 draft to acquire Manny Lawson, and then a year later made Nate Clements the highest-paid defender in NFL history with the intention both would become cornerstones of a defense that would climb among the NFL's elite. It didn't quite work out that way, and now both will be playing against the 49ers on Sunday when they face the Cincinnati Bengals.

With Clements as San Francisco's No. 1 cornerback and Lawson in a pivotal role at left outside linebacker, the two were together four seasons as starters with the 49ers, though Lawson's 2007 season was abbreviated to two games due to a season-ending knee injury, and Clements played only seven games in 2009 due to a season-ending shoulder injury.

In those four seasons, when Clements and Lawson combined for 97 starts, the 49ers showed several signs of becoming one of the league's best defenses. But they never quite got there. San Francisco's highest finish in the final NFL rankings for total defense was No. 13 during that span.

When Clements spoke with 49ers beat writers during a conference call Wednesday morning, NinersDigest asked the new Cincinnati cornerback why that San Francisco defense he was part of never could quite make it to the next level.

"We definitely had the players, had the chemistry," Clements replied. "You can't really pinpoint it on one thing. Things just didn't pan out the way we wanted them to."

And so, after the 2010 season, which may have fielded San Francisco's best defense during the four years Clements was a part of it, the 49ers allowed Lawson to walk in free agency and unceremoniously cut Clements rather than pay him the more than $15 million he would have earned this year as part of the outrageous eight-year, $80 million deal he inked with San Francisco as the top prize in 2007 NFL free agency.

But Clements never lived up to the worth of that contract, and that's part of the reason things just never panned out for that defense the way Clements, Lawson and the 49ers wanted them to.

Clements was too good a player to consider him a free-agent bust, but for the money the 49ers were paying him, he came disappointingly close.

He played at a Pro Bowl level his first year with the team in 2007 and still was solid despite a dip in performance the next season. But by 2009, Clements had fallen off to the point that he'd been replaced in the starting lineup in the same November game at Indianapolis that he sustained his season-ending shoulder injury, which happened ironically when Clements returned a punt.

Clements returned to start all 16 games last season, but they were at right cornerback after Shawntae Spencer replaced Clements as the team's No. 1 cornerback in the eyes of coaches, who put Spencer at left cornerback to start that season.

With new defensive coordinator Vic Fangio bringing in a variation of the 3-4 scheme the 49ers had been running in recent seasons, the team's new coaching staff spent a lot of time watching film of Clements and evaluating the way he performed during the 2010 season, when Clements had 88 tackles, three interceptions and three forced fumbles but again struggled more than just occasionally in coverage.

Even though they were lacking in front-line corners, the 49ers opted to quickly release Clements the same week the NFL lockout ended in late July rather than continue to negotiate with him to slash his 2011 salary.

The 49ers obviously had a much lower value on Clements than he was willing to play for, if they really even wanted to keep him at all.

"My mindset (then) was I'm a player who's still under contract," Clements said. "I knew we'd have to talk contract issues, and I was fine with that. I really don't want to get into the details about that situation. But I definitely didn't think things would play out the way they did."

Which is sort of what the 49ers, in retrospect, could be saying about their association with Clements.

He never became the lockdown No. 1 corner the 49ers needed or thought they were paying for. He never really even came close.

The 49ers got similar results with Lawson, whom the team traded up into the first round to select with the No. 22 overall pick of the 2006 draft.

The Niners saw Lawson as a dynamic playmaker who could be the potent edge rusher every successful 3-4 defense needs. Lawson was a dynamic player, all right, who could do a lot of things as a sideline-to-sideline linebacker that also could make plays in coverage.

But the one thing Lawson never did was provide consistent pressure in pass-rush situations, which pretty much is the No. 1 requirement of his job description.

He had only 2.5 sacks in 16 starts last year and finished his five seasons with the Niners with only 14.5 career sacks. It got to the point over the past two seasons that the team was replacing him on passing downs.

When Lawson became an unrestricted free agent after the lockout in July, the 49ers took a pass.

Lawson remained on the open market deep into August before finally signing a one-year deal with the Bengals for $3.5 million with a $1.5 million signing bonus.

Clements didn't have to wait nearly as long as Lawson for his new deal with Cincinnati. Just days after the Niners let him go, Clements signed a two-year deal with the Bengals for $10.5 million with $6 million guaranteed.

Clements now is starting for the Bengals at the same left cornerback position where he spent most of his career with the 49ers.

Lawson is starting for the Bengals at the same left outside linebacker position he played his entire career with the 49ers. Lawson, however, is now playing that position in a 4-3 system, which has different requirements and may be better suited to his skills.

Both veterans, obviously, are good NFL players. They wouldn't have landed as immediate starters with their new teams if they weren't.

But they never lived up to what the Niners needed them to be, or the investment the team put into each.

And when a new 49ers coaching regime came in with a clean slate this year, Clements and Lawson were deemed expendable and no longer important enough or valuable enough to keep on as part of the team's plan moving forward, because they never fulfilled expectations in the previous plan.

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