Postcard from camp: 49ers
SI.com has dispatched 10 writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. For the complete schedule of postcards, clickhere.
Setting The Scene
The 49ers are conducting training camp at their year-round facility in Santa Clara, Calif., for the sixth consecutive summer. The complex is located just beyond the shadows of an amusement park, which is fitting because the team and its fans could be in for an exciting ride after five consecutive losing seasons. There is a quiet enthusiasm that new coordinator Mike Martz will bring credibility to an offense that ranked last in scoring, passing yards, total yards and third-down efficiency; and the defense was further upgraded through free agency, the draft and a key return from the injured-reserve list. As the players went through their opening workouts beneath a warm sun Friday, there was not the false bravado that filled the air last year at the same time. Rather, there was a workmanlike confidence that change is on the horizon. That would be more exciting for them than any ride at nearby Great America, which claims to have the most thrill rides in Northern California.
1. Alex Smith is the favorite to win the starting job at quarterback. Publicly, the coaching staff is saying there's an open competition between Smith, the first pick in the 2005 draft, and Shaun Hill, a seventh-year pro who was undrafted out of Maryland. But the private sentiment is that the job is Smith's to lose. The delay in naming a starter stems from three things: Smith's inconsistent play his first three seasons (for which the organization must accept some responsibility, in that this marks the fourth consecutive year the 49ers have started a season with a new offensive coordinator and new No. 1 wide receiver); Hill's 2-1 record as the starter at the end of the season while Smith was out with a shoulder injury; and Martz's desire to create competition.
Smith clearly has more athleticism and a stronger arm, which is apparent even after 2007 shoulder surgery. Smith says he's healthy but adds that the soreness in the shoulder lingers longer after workouts than it did in the past. Hill's strength is his timing and touch -- he threw for five touchdowns with only one interception last season -- but there are questions about his ability to throw the deep ball and whether he can be as effective when there's something to play for.
Currently, the two are splitting reps with the first team and will continue to do so in the preseason, at least early on. But at this point Smith would have to fall completely on his face -- or sustain an injury setback -- to lose the competition.
2. The defense has a chance to be really good if the offense can carry its share of the load. The fact that the unit ranked 18th in fewest offensive points allowed last season is amazing considering the ineptness of the 49ers offense, which produced an average of just 13.7 points a game. This year, the defense not only gets back 2006 first-round draft choice Manny Lawson, who missed 14 games with a knee injury, but also adds physical free-agent end Justin Smith, who led the Bengals' defensive linemen in tackles in six of his seven seasons in Cincinnati, and first-round draft choice Kentwan Balmer.
Versatility will be the key under coordinator Greg Manusky. The 49ers will play both a 3-4 and a 4-3 front, depending on the opponent and the comfort level of the personnel. Smith will line up at end in a 4-3 and outside linebacker in a 3-4. He, Lawson and end Ray McDonald will be counted on to provide much of the pressure in passing situations, and Manusky says he will move them around to gain favorable advantages. If the 49ers can upgrade their pass rush, whose 31 sacks were better than only nine teams, it should make life easier for shutdown cornerback Nate Clements and fellow starter Walt Harris.
3. Running back Frank Gore looks sensational. People who have coached against and played against Martz's offense during its heyday with the Rams contend that running back Marshall Faulk was the one who made the unit go, not quarterback Kurt Warner. Gore has the talent to make that type of impact with the 49ers. Martz plans to expand Gore's role and give him more than a check-down option in the passing game. If the first day of camp is any indication, Gore should be a matchup nightmare. He showed soft hands and excellent burst. When Faulk counseled Gore in the offseason, he told him it's imperative that he stay in the playbook and learn the responsibilities of every position. Gore says he spent an extra 30-40 minutes nightly going over his playbook at home, and he'll do the same during the season.