BECAUSE HIS SIZE intrigued them, his speed shocked their senses and his athleticism boggled their minds, the 49ers drafted Manny Lawson not for a specific role but to explore the possibilities.
So they tinkered.
They tried Lawson, the second of their two No. 1 picks in 2006, at linebacker, asking him to drop his 6-foot-5, 240-pound frame into coverage and match strides with running backs.
They tried him at defensive end, asking him chase the quarterback.
They asked him to maintain his weight so he could stay with receivers.
They suggested he add weight to increase his strength at the line of scrimmage.
Even as he learned the ways of the NFL, Lawson was practically a Tinkertoy.
And his performance suffered. He wasn't productive enough, some moaned. What's his position, others wondered. He's terrific was one week but invisible the next.
A month ago, on the eve of the 2009 draft, Niners fans ready to give up on Lawson — and defensive end Parys Haralson — flooded the Internet, urging San Francisco to get a pass rusher.
"I knew it was out there," Lawson said. "Me and Parys talked about it. We followed the draft. You never want the team to draft the position you play. But if they did, it would make me strive harder to be that guy. It would just give me incentive to push harder."
The 49ers didn't draft a pass rusher because they evaluated Lawson and Haralson and concluded they were not the problem. The lack of pressure on quarterbacks, they felt, was largely because the defense couldn't decide what it wanted to be.
"That showed they have confidence in me,'' Lawson said of the team's not drafting a possible replacement. "They're really going to give me a chance, really put me in there and let me go to work."
Though the 49ers still plan to utilize Lawson's versatility, coach Mike Singletary's decision to simplify the defense should benefit nobody more than Lawson, 24, who says he is fully recovered from the torn ACL he sustained before the third game of the 2007 season. Singletary also believes Lawson's recovery is complete, saying he's confident that Lawson can handle the challenge.
Put another way, the 49ers have decided to let Lawson be the guy he could have been when he was the 22nd overall selection from North Carolina State. They even hired an assistant coach, Al Harris, to specifically to improve the pass rush.
"They just said, 'Manny, we're going with a true 3-4 (defense). You're not always going to (drop into coverage). And when it comes to our third-down package, we're going to take the handcuffs off and let you go.'"" he said. "That's a good thing. That's a very good thing. For me to have an opportunity to get back into it, get my technique back and get my defensive-end mentality back and become a pass rusher ... I want to run away with this."
Looking back, the temptation to tinker with Lawson was irresistible. He was a sprinter/hurdler in college and the ACC long jump champ in 2004. Having entered college at about 210 pounds, his physique was not unlike that of Olympic sensation Usain Bolt. What of this man who played linebacker, then end at N.C. State?
Though Lawson added about 30 pounds in college, the suggestion to make a similar gain in the NFL — to become a stronger pass rusher — was rooted in a flawed concept. Most edge rushers rely on speed, quickness and technique. And nearly all play between 235 and 265. Charles Haley — San Francisco's last great pass rusher — was 6-5 and about 255. Fred Dean was maybe 6-3 and 240 — after a 10-biscuit meal.
"I just want to be as mobile as I can, keep my speed, keep my agility and keep my acceleration. I want to stay loose, not be so bulky," Lawson said.
His weight is in the low 250s, probably where it should be for a size/strength balance and for determining whether he can be a premier rush end. Now that the tinkering is over, 2009 is the year to find out.
Contact Monte Poole at firstname.lastname@example.org.