Smith says new WR corps 'so much more mature'

The 49ers finished their offseason program a week ago, and quarterback Alex Smith is raving over the changes made from a year ago. Smith did not name names, but he made it clear he likes the additions to the club's offensive lineup - as well as at least one of the deletions.

"Take the receiving corps, for example," Smith said. "The top four or five guys, yeah, they're more talented than the guys last year. But they're also so much more mature and so much more competitive.

"They want to be great. It's not like it was last year, for whatever reason. You don't want to call anyone out, but it was different last year. It wasn't like that."

The only starter who is not back from last year is receiver Brandon Lloyd, who was regarded as the least mature player on the team. He ruffled feathers in the locker room last season with his reluctance to take any responsibility. After short-arming a couple of crucial passes last season in a loss to the Bears, Lloyd laid the blame squarely on quarterback Cody Pickett for not allowing Lloyd time to develop his routes.

The 49ers were hoping to deal Lloyd in the offseason for a fifth-round draft pick, but they ended up getting third- and fourth-round selections from the Redskins for the restricted free agent.

The 49ers signed receiver Antonio Bryant to take Lloyd's place. They also hope to have a healthy Arnaz Battle at the flanker position. Last season, Battle was healthy for only three games.

The 49ers also figure to have threats at tight end this season. Rookie Vernon Davis is expected to provide a presence in the passing game, and backup Eric Johnson caught 82 passes for 825 yards in 2004 before missing all of last season with a foot injury.

Smith had a dismal rookie season, as the 49ers finished with a 4-12 record. But Smith finished on a strong note, winning his last two starts.

Smith threw 11 interceptions and just one touchdown in his seven starts last season, compiling a 40.8 passer rating. But he showed some signs of promise with a 12-of-16 passing performance for 131 yards - and a passer rating of 98.7 - in a late-season victory over the Rams, then threw his only touchdown pass to spark a season-ending victory over the Houston Texans.

--- Smith took a beating last season in his seven starts, as he was sacked 29 times while attempting just 165 passes. Among the improvements he sees from a year ago is the offensive line.

The 49ers added guard Larry Allen through free agency. If Jeremy Newberry is healthy, the 49ers will have pretty good depth. Last year, Kwame Harris, Adam Snyder, Eric Heitmann, David Baas and Justin Smiley each saw considerable action. This season, three of those players could begin the season as reserves.

"Last year we were five deep and we had a couple injuries, and we were signing guys to play," Smith said. "That's not going to happen. We have seven or eight guys with experience."

--- When the 49ers lost offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy to become the Packers' head coach, coach Mike Nolan hired Norv Turner, who had recently been fired as Raiders head coach. Gone is the West Coast system and its excessive verbiage, replaced with Turner's number system that stresses a power-running game and down-field passing.

The system Turner brings to the 49ers is considered easier to learn than the complex West Coast system, but it means Smith has been forced to study all offseason to learn a new offense. Most of his struggles from a year ago can be traced directly to his being uncomfortable with his grasp of the system.

--- The 49ers selected a much-needed offensive weapon with the No. 6 overall pick in the draft when they chose speedy tight end Davis, an All-American at Maryland. Davis is the fastest player on the team, and gives the 49ers another viable option for Smith.

Davis should team at tight end with Johnson and wideouts Bryant and Battle to give the 49ers' offense a better arsenal of targets in the passing game.

--- Outside linebacker Julian Peterson was the 49ers' most accomplished player remaining after former GM Terry Donahue's infamous roster purge following the 2003 season. Peterson was twice named the club's franchise player, a tag he never really had a chance to live up to because of a torn Achilles' tendon five games into the 2004 season.

Peterson was slow to return to form last season, and he and his coaches never seemed to get a handle on how to best use his services in the club's new 3-4 defensive scheme. So when Peterson was again up for free agency, the 49ers made only a token effort to re-sign him, allowing him to skip to the intra-division Seahawks.

With the loss of Peterson, the 49ers lost a lot in the talent department. However, they hope to add something to their pass rush with the addition of first-round draft pick Manny Lawson, chosen with the No. 22 overall selection. Lawson will be asked to bring some heat to a pass rush that recorded one sack every 21.6 times an opposing quarterback dropped back to pass.

--- Former Virginia linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who has entered the supplemental draft after being dismissed by Cavaliers coach Al Groh, is gaining plenty of attention from the 49ers.

Nolan was the only NFL head coach to attend Brooks' workout June 22 in Charlottesville, Va. On June 28, the 49ers are scheduled to fly Brooks to the 49ers' team facility in Santa Clara, Calif.

Niners vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan said there are some "interesting guys" in this year's July 13 supplemental draft. McCloughan has already scouted Iowa State defensive end Jason Berryman.

When asked if the 49ers are expecting to take somebody in the draft, Nolan answered, "Do we expect to? No. But we're always investigating. We're interested in all of them."

If the 49ers select Brooks with their first pick, they would forfeit a first-round selection in the 2007 draft. Brooks is expected to be chosen in the first round.

--- Linebacker Brandon Moore will take part as a judge June 27 at a San Francisco firehouse recipe cook-off, featuring three fire fighters at Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco.

--- Former 49ers center Frank Morze died May 28 after a long battle with heart disease. Morze was 73. Morze was a second-round draft pick (No. 21 overall) of the 49ers in 1955 from Boston College. He was the team's primarily starting center for five seasons.

--- The 49ers front office appears to have its act together this offseason, as they have already signed five of their nine draft picks to contracts: linebacker Parys Haralson, defensive backs Marcus Hudson and Vickiel Vaughn, defensive lineman Melvin Oliver and tight end Delanie Walker. The big ones will come later, as the club hopes to have its first-round picks - tight end Vernon Davis and outside linebacker Manny Lawson, - signed and ready to participate for the first day of training camp.

The 49ers continue to search the waiver wire to see if help becomes available for their secondary. They would like to get more competition at cornerback and free safety, but it appears unlikely they can add a player of starter quality this late in the process.

The team is also spending a lot of time looking at the supplemental draft class, but it is highly unlikely they are willing to spend a high draft pick to obtain Brooks, who is seen as a character risk.


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