1. The 49ers look like a team in transition under new coach Jim Harbaugh. They are poised to field a lineup with as many as nine new starters on both sides of the ball. The loss of veteran leaders Takeo Spikes and Nate Clements puts the onus on Alex Smith, Patrick Willis and Vernon Davis to take a more vocal role in the locker room.
2. Alex Smith will unquestionably emerge as the 49ers' starting quarterback despite the talk of a competition with rookie Colin Kaepernick. At practice, Smith took all of the snaps with the first unit and was more decisive and accurate than his competitor. He quickly worked through the first few reads of his progression and typically found an open receiver available underneath. Although he tossed a few interceptions during team drills, he showed flashes of being a productive player in a system that will feature more three- and five-step drops than the previous scheme.
3. Expect Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker to have big years for the 49ers. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman has an affinity for tight ends as a former position coach, and the 49ers' system features a host of multiple tight-end sets. Given Walker's and Davis' athleticism, these formations will create mismatches in space and give Smith opportunities for big plays over the middle of the field.
4. Frank Gore should see his numbers increase this season in the 49ers' new offense. The seventh-year pro is still San Francisco's most explosive offensive weapon, and he will be used prominently in the passing game to take advantage of his skills in the open field. While he has lost some of the suddenness that he displayed in 2006 when he amassed over 2,000 yards from scrimmage, he could put up big numbers in a game plan that will require 20-25 touches on a weekly basis.
5. The 49ers' defense under Vic Fangio will be far more aggressive and unpredictable. Players talked about various pressure packages that have been installed and how Fangio seemed willing to dial up pressure in any situation. In team drills, the defense showed a variety of five- and six-man pressures from numerous pre-snap disguises, and the aggressiveness certainly caught the offense off guard. If they utilize a similar approach during the season, opponents will have a tough time keeping their quarterbacks upright in the pocket.
6. Several veterans upgrade the talent on the defensive side of the ball. Madieu Williams, Carlos Rogers and Donte Whitner give the team a formidable secondary, which should be vastly improved over the unit that surrendered 25 touchdowns and 11 passes of 40-plus yards in 2010.
7. Rookie Aldon Smith has been the most impressive defender in camp. He has been a dominant force off the edge in rush drills, and coaches are blown away by his athleticism. He also possesses the arm length that makes him difficult to block in isolated situations. Although he is still adjusting to playing from an upright position as a 3-4 outside linebacker, he could post eight or more sacks off the edge.
New guy to watch
All eyes should be on Braylon Edwards in the fall. He didn't receive the big-money deal he was seeking on the open market, so he arrives with a chip on his shoulder ready to prove he is worthy of being paid like one of the top pass catchers in the game. While his arrival has been accompanied by some skepticism due to his perceived diva-like personality and off-field issues, he certainly has the game to blossom as a No. 1 receiver in San Francisco.
Colin Kaepernick might develop into a solid NFL quarterback, but he isn't close to being ready to play at this point. He is still very hesitant with his reads, and the uncertainty in the pocket results in errant throws. Granted, he didn't have a full offseason to acclimate to the pro game, but it's hard to imagine him getting up to speed over the course of the preseason to have a viable shot of taking significant snaps.
Jim Harbaugh on changing the culture of a team that has suffered in recent years: "People like the word 'culture.' That seems to be the big buzz word from everybody, but to me it's more attitude. Our attitude is to do as many things right as we possibly can. I think when you can do that, then people feel that they are prepared and that gives them the best chance to not be unsuccessful. That's our attitude that we're taking."
The 49ers will be competitive in the NFC West, but their schedule is a monster. They have five cross-country road trips on the schedule, which typically has a negative impact on performance. They also face the AFC North, which means tough dates against the Ravens and Steelers. With three of their final four games on the road, it will be tough for the 49ers to make a serious push at a playoff berth this season. A 6-10 record feels about right.