49ers have stepped into next level

"We're still in the developmental process with rebuilding this team. We're still in the climb," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said Sunday. But after watching the team step lively through a three-day minicamp over the weekend, the view from here is that the Niners already are walking horizontal on the top ridge of NFL contenders.

That isn't to say there isn't work still to be done or holes to fill. There are. But plenty of successful work already has been done to get the Niners where they are today, and the holes to fill are not the gaping voids that could be seen on the team's roster at this time last year.

The Niners returned 20 starters from the team that lost to Green Bay in January, and needless to say, that made for some crisp execution even at this early stage of April. These minicamps are for learning, but those San Francisco starters already are done with school. They have graduated to the next level called performance, and they were running through drills this week honing their skills at a time when most teams are just attempting to sort out exactly what they have.

There is no denying that it's a whole new ballgame now for the Niners, that the 2002 outlook and goals have dramatically changed even from what they were a year ago. And the best part is, the team doesn't appear to be getting too full of itself. Well, maybe a few certain players are full of themselves. You don't need a basketball to figure out who they might be. But as a collective whole, the Niners still have their feet on the ground, and realize the only way they can lift themselves to rare air is to earn it.

Of those 20 returning starters, there are only a couple who have seen their best days behind them. Most of them either are in their prime or on the way up. The depth is dramatically improved at several positions, and the two new starters - guard Ron Stone and safety Tony Parrish - are, collectively, an upgrade over the two Pro Bowl-level players they replaced.

There still are some pressing needs and questions. The Niners must decide who their kicker is going to be, who will be their main return guy, who will join the starters on defense on third-and-7 situations. They must seriously examine if another veteran receiver is needed to put their passing game over the top. They have to find a way to make their pass rush more productive with basically the same pass rushers they had last year.

That's a relatively short list of concerns. To be sure, others will crop up between now and September. But that's what getting to the top is all about - taking it step by step. During the first sighting of the 2002 Niners at April minicamp, it was apparent many of those tough, struggling, baby steps already are behind them.

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