Eager Lawson in his element on the 3-4 edge

Manny Lawson has been freed. That's what a 3-4 defensive scheme can do for a versatile 6-foot-5 linebacker with unique skills and blazing speed. After a rookie season of being constrained to a role as a coverage linebacker while learning the intricacies of that position at the pro level, Lawson is preparing to wreak havoc for the 49ers this season as a featured performer on the edge.

That, of course, was what Lawson was supposed to be when he arrived in San Francisco last year as the No. 22 overall selection in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft.

Now – after a year of learning and transition in 2006 – the time finally has come.

And Lawson is ready. Oh, is he ever ready.

"Can't wait," Lawson said Tuesday. "I've gotten to know what this defense is about and how to play my position. This year, I kind of feel like the defense is opening up for me, and I'm going to be put in situations to make plays. Right now, I'm just trying to put myself in that position to make a big play."

The 49ers are putting Lawson in that position in first-year defensive coordinator Greg Manusky's 3-4 scheme, which borrows from the 3-4 variations devised by Wade Phillips and Mike Nolan, two of the top defensive minds of the contemporary NFL.

It wasn't like that for Lawson last year, when the 49ers quickly determined that he had not yet developed the strength and technique necessary to excel as an edge rusher at the pro level, at least as a blitzing linebacker in a 4-3 set. That's not exactly what everybody envisioned when San Francisco made Lawson its top defensive pick in the 2006 draft.

One of the premier pass rushers in college football as a decorated defensive end at North Carolina State, the 49ers saw an athlete whose size, speed and skills were a fine fit for an edge linebacker, the most vital position to the success of any 3-4 system.

Problem was, the 49ers didn't have the personnel at other vital positions to make a successful conversion from a standard 4-3 set to the 3-4. So Lawson spent his rookie season as an outside linebacker in a 4-3, where the 49ers ultimately determined he'd be more help to the team covering tight ends and backs and playing the run than bringing heat from the edge.

Much to Lawson's disdain, of course. He ranked 12th nationally in sacks as a North Carolina State senior. Expected to pump up San Francisco's pass rush, Lawson finished his rookie season with only three sacks and, as the season progressed, rarely was being sent after the quarterback.

"I can count the number of times I rushed last year on two hands," Lawson said. "Last year, I was dropping (into coverage) all the time. It was kind of just like, ‘Yes, that's where the team needs me and I've got to do it.'"

So Lawson did it. But there's a silver lining to his season of learning on the job. Lawson became a pretty darn good strong-side linebacker, performing well in coverage and also showing good sideline-to-sideline speed chasing down plays.

But this year promises to be different, and Lawson finds himself back in his playmaking element. San Francisco's new scheme is a good fit for Lawson and has given him the freedom to get the most out of his unique size at talent.

At 6-foot-5, Lawson has a long wingspan to shed blockers and the speed – 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash – to beat offensive tackles around the edge and stay tight with running backs and tight ends in coverage.

He'll be doing a lot of both this season. And the best part of it is, Lawson says, is opponents won't know what's coming.

"I can be out there showing one thing, but I'll have something else in mind," Lawson said. "I've made myself known as a covering outside linebacker, so you see me out there in coverage and I'm Hollywood, and then I come back and I'm rushing. It throws the offense off and puts the entire defense in a good position to make plays."

The 49ers added several playmakers on defense during the offseason to place around Lawson and help with the transition to the 3-4 scheme. San Francisco spent $125 million in free agency to acquire cornerback Nate Clements, safety Michael Lewis, nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin and linebacker Tully Banta-Cain – a pass-rushing force who plays the outside position opposite Lawson.

San Francisco added more speed and talent to its lineup Monday when the team inserted first-round pick Patrick Willis as a starter next to Lawson at inside linebacker. Willis, the No. 11 overall selection in the April draft, has been one the team's defensive stars of the summer.

"We have acquired some great talent, and that just gives me an opportunity to make plays," Lawson said. "Myself and Tully, we get kind of an equal-opportunity rush now. We get to create some havoc, and that's going to open up plays for our inside linebackers and defensive backs. We've set ourselves some big shoes to fill."

Manusky, who coached the San Diego Chargers' talented linebacker unit the past five seasons before coming to San Francisco, says unleashing Lawson this season will be part of San Francisco's defensive game plan, particularly now that Lawson has served his 2006 apprenticeship.

"The first year at linebacker, when you come into the league, you're just trying to figure out what you're supposed to do," Manusky said. "The second year is a big stepping stone for a lot of players. Manny has taken some big strides.

"He's doing a great job of understanding how this defense works. Manny's got the ability to pass rush, and we'll try to get him as many rushes as we can."

Which, all things considered, is why Lawson is here in the first place.

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