49ers key to success: OLB Manny Lawson

Back and forth he went, gaining speed with each of high-kneed, long-legged strides. Long after his teammates had vacated the practice field Monday morning, Manny Lawson continued to toil under the balmy sun at the 49ers training complex, sprinting with determination to make up for lost time. He's in a hurry to get back to his pre-injury form, and to be sure, the Niners need him to get there.

When San Francisco's 2007 season of high hopes began last year, Lawson was displaying some of the dynamic versatility and athleticism that convinced the 49ers to select him in the first round of the NFL draft the year before. On the verge of a breakout start that helped lift the 49ers to a 2-0 record out of the gate, Lawson's second season was abruptly cut short after two games when he tore a knee ligament in practice.

Just like that, San Francisco's season began a quick downturn. The 49ers lost their next eight games on the way to a disappointing 5-11 finish. It may not be just a coincidence the 49ers finished 3-11 without Lawson to make plays on their defensive edge. His energetic presence at strong-side outside linebacker was sorely missed the remainder of the season.

Lawson had a difficult time watching from the sidelines as his teammates struggled without him to a franchise-worst fifth consecutive losing season. As one of the top young talents brought in by the 49ers over recent years to change those losing ways, the charismatic Lawson agonized on the sidelines that he couldn't do anything about the team's slide except watch it happen.

"Man, that hurt," Lawson told SFI after Monday's morning practice, his body soaked in sweat from his determined workout that finished minutes before. "Watching them hurting, you want to hurt too. All I could do was motivate from where I was watching, and that's not the type of person I am. I want to be out there with them. We all work hard together, we sweat together, we bleed together. We also fight amongst one another but we also love, you know? Man, we're a team here. Just having them go out there without me … it was killing me.

"I got excited and all when we won games and good things happened, but it's not the same happiness (teammates felt). They played, sweated and came out victorious. I sat and watched and ate potato chips."

The potato chips are now nowhere to be seen and Lawson's angular and rippled 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame has never looked better or more imposing. Well, except for maybe that knee brace Lawson's is forced to wear until team doctors give him the OK to make it disappear.

"I'd take it off right now and play without it if I could," Lawson said. "I can't wait until they tell me I can get out of this bionic leg. As soon as I can get out of that thing, I'll be ecstatic."

When and if that time comes, it would represent Lawson's full-circle recovery from a torn anterior cruciate ligament, one of football's season-dooming injuries. But Lawson, who said he could have been ready to play in February after undergoing surgery in September, says he's just about as good as new and – with a gleam in his eye – said he'll be even better than that by the time the season begins.

"Right now, I feel re-energized," Lawson said. "My first couple days out here, it was rough on me. My body had to re-adjust to all that (football conditioning). Now it has. All my soreness is gone. I'm getting my wind back, I'm getting fluid out there, so now I'm starting to feel like my old self again, if not better."

Lawson's old self was a player beginning to show signs of fulfilling his potential before his 2007 season abruptly came to a crashing halt. The knee injury now behind him, Lawson is anxious to get back to his rise as a budding impact defender.

Held out of spring drills as a precaution, the 49ers finally have unleashed Lawson during training camp. Monday's morning session was the first time he has been in pads since he was injured last September.

"Words cannot describe how good I feel to be back there on the field," Lawson said.

The 49ers are feeling pretty good about it, too. Lawson holds one of the keys to San Francisco's success this year with the many different attributes he brings to the team's 3-4 defensive scheme.

After a promising rookie season in 2006 during which he started 11 games, produced 65 tackles and had 2.5 sacks and three takeaways, Lawson was making plays all over the field last year for a San Francisco defense that keyed the team's 2-0 start.

The 49ers had a difficult time the remainder of the season replacing the athleticism and all-purpose threat that Lawson brought to the defense. He was immediately inserted back in his starting slot at outside linebacker once summer camp began last week.

"He's looking good," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "I don't think he's 100 percent, but he's doing well. With Manny, it would be more of a stamina question than anything else right now. He's going to be fine."

Lawson is a unique edge performer in that he has the size to see over and battle with offensive lineman but also the speed to turn and run with tight ends and running backs. He is a sideline-to-sideline force against the run and is effective dropping into coverage. His ability to rush the quarterback is still something of an unknown as the pass-rushing prowess he displayed in college has yet to materialize at the professional level. But the 49ers certainly still plan to develop and use that aspect of his game.

Just Lawson's presence alone brings the element of surprise and unpredictability to his side of the defense.

"You never know what I'm going to do," Lawson said. "You'll see me blitzing. You'll see me dropping into coverage, zone dropping or man coverage. That's out there. You never know what I'm going to do."

But while the 49ers will continue to move him around and allow him to freelance – or "hollywood" as Lawson put it – it's not about what Lawson does individually that's important to him or the 49ers.

"I think my role is being more so of just a team player," Lawson said. "Whatever it takes for me to do, I'll do. I think that will help us on the defense to make huge strides. If I need to motivate, I'll motivate. If I need to drop or rush, I'll do those things. Whatever I need to do, I'll do. I think that's what my role is on this team – to do anything it takes that will help us become a better team."

And every day, particularly after practice during his solitary wind sprints, Lawson takes another step in that pursuit. He's back to being the promising young defender he was a year ago at this time, but now possesses the wisdom and experience that comes with dealing with a major injury and sitting through a season and the rehabilitation process that comes after it.

"Lost time is going to be lost time. It's always in the past," Lawson said of his and the team's 2007 disappointments. "So you never focus on the past, you just go forward. So that's what I'm doing. I'm running to better myself for the future."

And a better Lawson can, well, only make the 49ers better, which is a place the team definitely needs to go in 2008.

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