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Smith must play like No. 1 pick for Niners to reach potential

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SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers have been the trendy pick to emerge as NFC West champions. What annoys the heck out of them is the rationale as to why they've become the hot team in the division: The uncertainty of two-time defending division champ Arizona because of the retirement of quarterback Kurt Warner.

"I'm a little offended," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. "When we played Kurt, we won games. We beat Arizona twice last year. We've had success against them. We went 5-1 within the division, and we should have gone 6-0. Kurt won a lot of games with them outside the division. Now, all of a sudden because he's gone the division's open."

Smith's feelings resonate with All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, too.

Associated Press
The 49ers' hopes to win the NFC West -- as many expect -- rest on the shoulders of Alex  Smith, who had his best statistical season last year in 10 starts.
Smith's career numbers (missed all of 2008)
Year Passing yards TDs-INTs
2005 875 1-11
2006 2,890 16-16
2007 914 2-4
2009 2,350 18-12

"Kurt Warner was a difference-maker for Arizona for them winning the games that they won outside our division and inside, I guess," Willis said. "Regardless of whether he was going to be there or not, regardless of Seattle making the changes they made, regardless of St. Louis getting whoever they got, I feel like this year, I feel that no matter what, we're not going to let anybody stand in our way."

Following an 8-8 record and second-place finish to the Cardinals in 2010, San Francisco appears to be ascending. Mike Singletary has formed a team of loyal disciples with his tough-love coaching style. The 49ers also have accumulated very good talent at least two levels deep at most positions.

But it can't be dismissed that the other teams in their division -- Seattle, St. Louis and Arizona -- have undergone significant changes that make the 49ers a bit vulnerable. San Francisco has been more stable than any team in the NFC West.

What also can't be overlooked is that unlike a lot of teams that have been consistently competitive and/or successful, the 49ers swagger is still all talk. In San Francisco, they want to win. But they've yet to develop an aura. They seem as if they're getting there, but there is still room for doubt to surface if a tough stretch arises midseason.

The biggest question, of course, surrounds Smith. Oh, players and coaches are loving up the 2005 No. 1 overall pick, the same guy they didn't hand the starting job to at this time last season. But nobody really knows how he's going to react until he actually has to react. And that will determine if the 49ers are for real.

"Offensively, we're ready," Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis said. "Alex Smith is poised and ready for a breakout season. He's been through a lot. He's a strong individual. When I look at Alex, I see a guy who wants to be successful. He makes us feel like we have a leader. We know Alex is going to go out and perform. You want to have that around. Without a quarterback, the team is nothing."

There shouldn't be questions about a quarterback picked first overall heading into his sixth year. You should already know if he can play. That's not the case for Smith, though. He's been in and out of the starting lineup, playing in new systems annually since his career began.

Now, he's The Guy with a coaching staff and teammates firmly behind him.

After throwing for 2,350 yards and 18 touchdowns with 12 interceptions in 10 starts last season, to those who play with him, Smith turned a corner. The team went 5-5 with him as starter, but players said his command and huddle presence grew more inspiring with each snap. Now, Smith is playing in the same scheme with the same offensive coordinator, Jimmy Raye, for two consecutive seasons -- a first for Smith. And with some flashy weapons (Michael Crabtree, Frank Gore, Davis, Josh Morgan,) there is a feeling around the organization that Smith is finally in a good place.

"He's light years ahead of where he was last year," Singletary said. "With all the change he's had, he wasn't looking to read guys on defense. He was worried about getting guys in place on offense. It's not like that. Now guys are where they're supposed to be. Now he can say, 'Let me soak this [defense] in and make this my field, my playground.' He's a guy that gets better from one snap to the next. I'm really excited about him."

Smith, for what it's worth, feels comfortable about where he's at.

"There's no question things are better," Smith said. "I'm less worried about what we're doing and more worried about what we're going to do to them. That's kind of the next step. You get to the point where you feel so good, you just react."

Smith still has a lot to prove. For his career, Smith has thrown 37 touchdowns and 43 interceptions, and he had to restructure his contract (downwards) before last season to remain with the 49ers. He's never instilled the faith in the franchise that he has now.

Smith has spurred confidence by taking control. During practices he has stopped drills to tell other players what to do correctly, showing the forcible command the good ones possess. Instead of just doing what's been told he's taken ownership.

More than anything, there is no doubt that Smith is the guy. There is no quarterback competition. David Carr? Nate Davis? Smith is secure unless he completely folds. And that is something we simply don't know will happen or not.

After the defense dominated the offense the first day in full pads, Willis offered this up: "We were excited to see how the offense played last season when Alex took over (in Week 8). Seeing how they are out here, even through OTAs, we know they're still trying to get things right. This is their second year in the same offense, the fourth year we've been in the same defense, so we're going to be a little ahead.

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"Hopefully by the time we finish they'll have the confidence that no matter who is on the other side of the ball, they'll feel they can put up points."

The 49ers will be a run-first team with Gore -- one of the most underrated players in the league -- doing much of the heavy lifting. San Francisco has tried to upgrade its offensive line by drafting offensive linemen Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati in the first round in order to get more push in the running game.

Still, "We also have to have that versatility with two backs in the game (on first and second down) to have that passing game to go with it to support them in the running game to keep the defense honest," Smith said. "We also have the capability where if we're in a one-back offense that we can spread teams out and still have the capability to run the football. We can make it tough on defenses no matter the personnel."

And with that, Smith, of all people, offered up these words of caution: "It's all good and everything right now but at the same time, it's early. This is the time to bring it all together. It looks good on paper. What we do the next 30 days is going to set the bar for how the season goes."

OBSERVATION DECK

» Nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin missed the first two days of training camp, but his absence hasn't created much of a stir.

That's because the team feels he will eventually sign his $7 million franchise tender and take the field. Because the truth of the matter is that he doesn't have any other option but to sit out the season and not earn a dime. A source close to Franklin said he's not going to be here in the immediate future. No information was given as to when he could report.

The 49ers placed the franchise tag on Franklin during the free-agent period. They opted against signing him to a long-term deal, though, which hasn't sat well with him. It's too late for those conversations to take place until next offseason. The NFL deadline for negotiating long-term deals with unsigned franchise players has expired, leaving San Francisco with exclusive rights to the seven-year veteran.

Ricky Jean Francois, a second-year player from LSU, is working at nose tackle for now.

» Davis might get downfield better than any tight end in the game. Coming off a season in which he had 78 catches for 965 yards and 13 touchdowns, Davis looks even hungrier to be a playmaker. He had no problem making plays of more than 10 yards at practice, going against some pretty solid linebackers and safeties. With his ability to stretch the field, he will continue to clear out the middle for Crabtree and Morgan underneath.

(Side note: Davis is sporting a sweet Mohawk. With his superhero physique, dude has got to get a role in the next "X-Men" movie).

» As for Crabtree and Morgan, they looked very good in individual drills. But with the defense overwhelming the offense, they had a hard time making plays. Crabtree is very adept at getting off press coverage, and because of his ability to get off the line he could be a routine quick-strike threat.

» The 49ers' defensive front seven are frighteningly physical -- and deep. Although Franklin isn't here (and when he does arrive this unit could be even scarier), there are no signs that the front seven will be yielding much in the black-and-blue department. Defensive end Justin Smith is lights-out nasty, even though at 285 pounds he isn't a prototypical 3-4 defensive end. He was giving it to offensive linemen in individual and team drills and really set the tone for the defense.

SURPRISE, SURPRISE

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Singletary tweaked his (in)famous nutcracker drill by making it only for linemen, tight ends and linebackers. What used to basically be a rock 'em, sock 'em, bell-ringing throw-down for two players between tackling dummies was more of an in-line, straight-ahead blocking drill. Singletary said after speaking with his assistants that he figured the skill players would get a better benefit out of doing individual work, where there was some contact.

As for those who partook in the nutcracker drill, Singletary had his coaches go with a quick whistle shortly after contact. There was still some serious hitting with defensive end Jason Smith routinely laying the wood on whoever wanted a piece. In the coming days, the team will alter the drill with players coming at different angles and other ways to simulate other types of in-game blocks.

ROOKIE REPORT

» Iupati, picked 17th overall, looks physically ready to move into the starting lineup. He has a huge learning curve, but he is being pushed. He may have caught an early break as, on the first day of contact drills, incumbent left guard David Baas sustained a mild concussion, allowing Iupati to work with the first-team offense.

"He's a mature guy, and he knows what he wants to do," Singletary said. "When I talked to him before the draft, he said, 'I want to be the best. I want to do all the little things. I got something I want to prove. I want to take care of my parents.' Man, you want that guy. He's what you want. He's what (players) should look like."

» Davis, picked 11th overall, is more of a project than Iupati. He has some work to do to get stronger and more NFL-ready, but his athleticism has dazzled Singletary. Davis had a fairly rough go on the first day of contact drills. At just 20-years old, he might have a harder time than Iupati breaking into the starting lineup right away.

"Anthony is young, but it's amazing how talented he is," Singletary said. "I'm thankful our offensive line coaches are so detailed. They're going to take the time. Anthony Davis is going to be a heck of a player."

» The first-year player who's turned the most heads? Third-round linebacker Navarro Bowman. It's unlikely he'll unseat Takeo Spikes as the Mike (strongside) linebacker next to Willis, but Bowman's got Singletary's heart racing with his unharnessed physicality. He needs to harness it to take the next step, though. Bowman could be utilized in some packages and on special teams.

"I've got to get him to settle down a little bit," Singletary said. "He surprised me the most. When I looked at him on film, I thought he was more of an outside guy who may have a chance to come in and be a Mike linebacker. He's a thick guy and built strong, so when I look at the power that he has and his mental makeup -- he's a man now -- I get real excited about him."

» Second-round pick, safety Taylor Mays, has shown himself to be far more versatile -- and coachable -- than initially thought. Hurt by his fall into the second round, Singletary said Mays has driven coaches crazy asking so many questions. It's paid off, though. Mays is picking up the defense quickly. He's also more than the in-the-box, hybrid linebacker many projected because of his 6-foot-3, 230-pound frame. Singletary said Mays, who is working with the second unit, has been strong in coverage and can play free safety just as well as strong safety in the 49ers' scheme.

"He's a guy that's very exciting," Singletary said. "He was like clay when we got him. He just wants to be coached. He's hungry. He can do anything that you ask him to do. The league will see that this guy is a player. How much time it takes, I don't know but if he has to work on something, he's going to get it right. He's self motivated. He wants to know everything. I'm really excited about him."

SAY WHAT?

"People want to say the NFC West is the weakest division. Honestly, I don't care. I just want to get into the playoffs, even if that means our division is the weakest. I don't care. If it's the hardest, I don't care. We only have one goal, and that's to get into the playoffs."

-- Patrick Willis

EXTRA POINTS

» Gore came in a little lighter than usual at 215 pounds, but Singletary said he's not worried because it's not a radical drop in weight (Gore typically weighs no more than 220). As long as Gore is durable and produces, it's all good.

» Former Miami Dolphins wide receiver Ted Ginn, who was traded to San Francisco in the offseason, will be tried as a punt returner as well as kickoff returner. He has the blazing speed but didn't flash much in the first day in pads.

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