Target practice: New cast could lift Smith

Vernon Davis rumbling over the middle. Eric Johnson gliding into the flat. Antonio Bryant streaking deep on go routes. Michael Robinson swinging out of the backfield on third down. Yes, you could say things will look a lot different this year for Alex Smith when the 49ers' upstart quarterback drops back to pass in his sophomore NFL season. And, in this case, a change of scenery is a good thing.

As the 49ers conduct their final spring workout sessions during the next week to conclude their June organized team activities, Smith is settling in with a new offensive scheme and a new set of targets that are supposed to make his second year in the starting spotlight go much smoother than his first.

The Niners, quite openly, are building their offense around the 22-year-old Smith, and the new pieces they have added over the past three months ostensibly will be working with the young quarterback well into the future as San Francisco shapes its reconstructed attack.

There's Davis, the prized No. 1 draft pick who already is regarded as a physical phenomenon before he even catches his first NFL pass. There's Bryant, the speedy and rangy veteran who immediately takes over as the team's No. 1 wideout. There's Robinson, who already appears to be earning himself at least a few weekly downs in San Francisco's passing game with his athletic display of skill and explosion this spring.

And then there's Johnson, the erstwhile starting tight end who has returned to the fold after missing all of Smith's rookie season in 2005 with a foot injury. All Johnson did in 2004 was lead the 49ers with 82 receptions, the most ever by a San Francisco tight end and also the most by any 49er at any position over the past three seasons.

"It's kind of a new leaf going into my second year here to have guys like that," said Smith, whose well-documented struggles in his pro debut were at least in part due to the weak group of pass-catchers who were working with him.

"It's a new offense with new faces in a sense at some positions and I'm excited to grow with them here," Smith continued. "This is my first offseason, so I'm excited to be here with them for this instead of just kind of going into a season fresh."

Smith never did develop much of a rapport with his receivers last year, which was understandable on several levels.

First, after working with the first team from the moment he was drafted No. 1 overall in April 2005, Smith bombed out during the preseason and didn't find himself taking significant snaps as the starter until taking that job away from Tim Rattay in October.

Then, Smith suffered knee damage in his second start, forcing him to miss the next five games. Smith returned as the starter to stay in December, but he never really got into a groove, though his passing numbers finally began to show improvement while he was leading the 49ers to victory in their final two games.

Arnaz Battle was in and out of the lineup during that time with his own knee problems, and Smith was working with a collection of tight ends that would finish the season with only 17 receptions combined.

It looked like Smith had something developing with Brandon Lloyd, who caught Smith's only touchdown pass of 2005 in the season finale after Smith had begun his career with 11 interceptions, but Lloyd now is long gone after being dispatched to the nation's capital in March for two draft picks.

But Smith – and the 49ers – has to like the net total of the offseason additions and subtractions to his receiving arsenal. The cast of characters now on board looks a lot more willing and able to help lift Smith's game to the next level – even if that's only the level above rock bottom.

"We hung out and we've done some things out here on this field and it's always gotten better every week as far as running the routes and understanding where the quarterback wants you to be," said Bryant, the fifth-year veteran who promises to be the team's first truly legitimate weapon at receiver since Terrell Owens skipped town in 2003. "Now it's going to come into the full swing of things … Just knowing if (Smith) puts the ball right there every time, this is where I'll be."

Smith continues to display the erratic tendencies of his rookie season as he learns the intricacies of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner's vertical attack, but the polish of repetition is beginning to show. And it's obvious he's now working with better talent, particularly the newcomers added through the draft.

That became evident to Smith as soon as he started playing pitch and catch with his robust rookie tight end for the first time.

"(Davis) adds a different dimension," Smith said. "He's a bigger target and such a versatile player. You're talking about a guy like that with his frame and athleticism that plays tight end. But I think you can play him (at) a lot of different positions on the field. He can be split out and still be very dangerous. He can be in the backfield and do some things. And I'm excited about him and Eric, the opportunity to get both those guys on the field and really create some matchup problems and really do some fun things."

Davis already is getting some early mention as a Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate – even though the 49ers were dead last in the NFL's offensive rankings last year – and Bryant says that's not just idle chatter. Having a component such as Davis can make everything click around him in the passing game, Bryant said.

When asked how the presence of a play-making tight end can help the wide receivers, Bryant responded, "Tremendously. You look at a lot of teams with successful (passing games), when you've got a tight end that can help stretch the field aside from receivers, the defense has to respect that. They have to get a DB or lock a safety on him, and that takes away from the secondary when you've got receivers that run good routes or can attack on the outside."

It's all a part of the master plan as the 49ers put the pieces around Smith in an evolving offense that was expansion-ish at best in the way in performed most of last season.

But now there are upgrades at every point Smith might look to throw. And with legitimate competition going on in the fight for the No. 3 receiving role behind Bryant and Battle – veteran Bryan Gilmore is making a strong early play for that job – the view that opens for Smith on passing downs this season promises to be something much more pleasant than the year before.

"I think the receivers group as a whole has come so far since last year," Smith said. "You're talking about a group of guys that have put in so much time this offseason. We've been out there two or three times a week since February, throwing and really getting a lot of reps in. We've put in a lot of time together trying to build some timing, and now we're fine-tuning that here with everyone else on the field."

It's a work in progress, to be sure. But the new working parts are showing progress, and for the NFL's worst passing attack of 2005, there is nowhere to go but up.

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