Should he stay or should he go? Allen Rossum

With free agency set to begin near the end of this month, SFI takes a look at some of the top veterans on the San Francisco roster that will become free agents if they are not signed to deals with the team by Feb. 27. 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 return specialist Allen Rossum.

One of the most prolific kick returners in NFL history, Allen Rossum was on his third team in three seasons when he joined the 49ers in free agency last season, apparently an aging veteran on the decline who was bouncing from team to team at the end of his career.

But when he bounced to San Francisco in 2008, Rossum gave the 49ers a significant boost and the kind of explosive burst they haven't had in their return game in several years.

Rossum, already second in NFL history in total return yards when he became a 49er last year, became a sparkplug on special teams who presented the kind of consistent threat on both punt and kickoff returns that San Francisco has been lacking since before the turn of the century.

Rossum finished sixth in the NFL and third in the NFC with a 26.8 average on kickoff returns, the best of his distinguished career and also the best by a 49ers team leader since Vic Washington finished with a 28.6 average way back in 1972.

Among his many big returns that gave the 49ers good starting field position for their offense, Rossum had a career-best 104-yard return for a touchdown of the opening kickoff to set the early tone in San Francisco's Monday night game at Arizona last November.

Rossum also averaged 14.9 yards on punt returns, which would have led the NFC and ranked second in the NFL had he had enough return attempts to qualify. That's the best production the 49ers have received since Jimmy Williams led the NFL in punt returns with a 16.8 average in 2002. Since then, no San Francisco punt return leader had averaged more than 8.6 yards a return in a season.

Rossum, a mighty mite at 5-foot-8 and 178 pounds, proved big with the football in his hands and showed he still has the speed and shifty moves to be a big-play threat virtually every time he touches the football.

Oh, and he didn't just touch the football as a kick returner for the 49ers in 2008. San Francisco also occasionally used him as a receiver during the season, where he scored on a 1-yard touchdown run on a reverse – the first rushing touchdown of his career.

Rossum had the first offensive start of his career in October against Philadelphia, when he also recorded his only reception of the season – the first catch of his career, which also has included nine starts as a cornerback with Philadelphia and Atlanta.

The versatile performer, a popular figure in the San Francisco locker room, had 10 kickoff returns of more than 30 yards and finished his 11th NFL season second in league history in total return yards (14,571) and kickoff return yards (11,799) while also ranking first among active players with 2,972 career punt return yards.

The Rossum breakdown

Age: 33

2008 performance: Was one of the NFL's top return specialists with a career-best 26.8 average on kickoff returns – which ranked third in the NFC and sixth in the league – and a 14.9 average on punt returns. Was named a second alternate for the Pro Bowl as a returner, and also contributed on offense with the first rushing touchdown and first reception of his career.

2008 season grade: A

Why he's worth keeping: When the 49ers signed Rossum last March after he spent the 2007 season with the Pittsburgh Steelers, a Steelers insider told SFI not to expect much because Rossum was slowing down, displayed some questionable judgement letting punts bounce and no longer was an impact performer. That certainly wasn't the case last year as Rossum displayed sure hands and consistent breakaway ability during one of the best seasons of his career. If he can maintain his performance of last year, it's a definite plus for the 49ers, and Rossum's production would definitely need to be replaced if he does not return.

Why he's not worth keeping: Rossum turns 34 in October and is getting up in years for a return specialist, who can lose their effectiveness quickly. The 49ers also would like to start thinking more long-term in this area and might opt for a younger replacement that can grow with the team.

Where he would fit with the 2009 49ers: Don't expect new coordinator Jimmy Raye to find ways to work Rossum into the offense like Mike Martz did last year, but Rossum would hold the same role as this season as the team's lead returner on both kickoff and punts.

How he would be replaced: The 49ers already have a few possible replacements on their roster in Delanie Walker, Michael Robinson and 2008 third-round draft pick Reggie Smith, a cornerback who may have return potential. Reliable Arnaz Battle and Nate Clements also are capable punt returners, but none of these candidates are true lead returners, and the 49ers likely would look for someone to fill that role either in free agency or the college draft.

Market level interest: Diminishing. Rossum proved a lot of people wrong last year with one of the best seasons of his career, but there are not a lot of buyers out there for an aging return specialist with a lot of wear and tear on his tires as most teams are looking for younger, cheaper alternatives in their return game.

49ers interest level: Attentive. Rossum was a good 49er on and off the field in 2008, and the Niners know he was a big reason for the team's improvement in its return game. He also provided a solid veteran presence to those units and in the locker room. Rossum gave the 49ers the consistent return threat they had been lacking for several years, and the team definitely realizes the importance of that in the big picture.

The verdict

It's not a slam dunk that Rossum will return, because the 49ers can't really count on him matching his surprising career-best performance of 2008, and he did have some injury issues that forced him to miss three games. The 49ers would like to get younger at the position, but after trying that route several times during recent seasons (and wasting draft picks on Rasheed Marshall and Brandon Williams, both of whom proved to be failures as return men), they should stick with the proven performer who gave them a lot of bang for their buck in 2008. Rossum, who cost the 49ers $870,000 on a one-year deal with a $40,000 signing bonus last year, is well worth another short-term deal to handle return duties for at least another season, and deserves a raise at that.

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