49ers and Manny Lawson: To Franchise or Not to Franchise?

I learned a few things this week regarding the state of NFL contracts this off-season.  One thing I picked up was that teams can negotiate and sign their own players between now and March 4th, when the current CBA expires.  This means there is a short bit of time to sign players who will become free agents at that time.

The other thing I learned was that the NFL intends to have the franchise tag available to teams as usual in 2011.  This makes things very interesting, especially for the 49ers, who have numerous potential free agents at key positions.

This last season was the final year of Manny Lawson's contract with the 49ers and he will become an unrestricted free agent as of March 4th, 2011.  Of course, he can't sign with anyone at that point due to the lack of CBA - assuming one is not negotiated and signed by then.  But he CAN sign a contract extension (extending him from figuratively "five more minutes" with the team to another year or more) with his current team, the 49ers, in the meantime.

If the two sides aren't able to reach an agreement very soon, the 49ers would have the option of franchising Lawson in order to retain him for 2012.  Last year the team franchised Aubrayo Franklin, who also is an unrestricted free agent as of March 4th.  The current CBA states that a player can be franchised in consecutive years up to three times (we're verifying the exact number but either way Franklin qualifies).

After the jump we explore things further.

The 2010 franchise salary for a linebacker was $9.7 million dollars, meaning it will be even higher in 2011.  That's a huge chunk of change for a guy who doesn't get a lot of sacks (2.5 in 2010, nine over the last two seasons) from his OLB spot.  But the thing that makes me even wonder if the 49ers would consider franchising Lawson is the rest of his game, and the lack of a good replacement currently on the roster.

Just about anyone who watched the 49ers play in 2010 can tell you that Travis LaBoy and Ahmad Brooks were not good in coverage...at all.  They seemed lost when covering passes for the most part and just didn't move well running backwards, sticking and closing, etc.  Parys Haralson has more experience as a 3-4 OLB than either of the aforementioned players but we all know Haralson doesn't have very good lateral speed (see the 2009 Titans and Eagles games).

No, the best coverage outside linebacker in 2010 was easily Manny Lawson.  He's very athletic and appeared to have had "the light go on" in terms of playing the position in it's entirety...well, you know...besides pass rushing.  Lawson is also very good against the run and is key in containing outside runs with his closing speed.

So I wonder...how big of a drop-off would there be at OLB if Lawson were to walk?  Can LaBoy first be re-signed, then learn to better cover receivers as well as play 1st and 2nd downs against the run?  Will Ahmad Brooks turn the corner we all hoped he'd have turned by now?  Or should the 49ers bid Lawson farewell and plan on selecting a new generation to succeed him such as Texas A&M's Von Miller or Texas' Sam Acho?

I just can't see the 49ers spending around $10 million on a guy who's a heck of a two-down player.  But again...what do they do once he's gone?  Maybe the 49ers see things differently.  I guess we'll find out soon enough.

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