49ers training camp: Seven players to watch

For various reasons, some 49ers will bear more scrutiny than others when training camp practices begin at team headquarters on Friday. Here's a look at seven key players to watch during the early stages of camp.

QB ALEX SMITH: It might be a bit simplistic to conclude the 49ers' hopes this season ride on Smith's ability to live up to his billing as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft. But it is safe to say Smith must play a lot better in his second year than he did as a rookie quarterback for the 49ers to be competitive. Although Smith ended last season with back-to-back victories – the 49ers' first consecutive victories since midway through 2003 – he experienced more than his share of difficulties. He threw 11 interceptions and just one touchdown while starting seven games. He often looked unsure of himself, a condition only exacerbated by the lack of experience and talent around which he was surrounded. Smith should get assistance from a better supporting cast, and he hopes to catch on quickly to new coordinator Norv Turner's offense.

G LARRY ALLEN: Word around the NFL is that Allen is rolling on the down side of his Hall of Fame career, and that's why the Cowboys decided not to keep him around in 2006 after he earned a Pro Bowl berth for the 10th time last season in Dallas. Allen definitely needs to focus on staying in shape and taking care of his body at this point of his career, but he showed many of the same characteristics this spring that have established him as one of the greatest offensive linemen in league history. Allen promised to bring some nastiness to San Francisco's young and developing line this year, and training camp is the place to start that. The young and impressionable 49ers will be ready and willing to take Allen's lead in several areas.

LB MANNY LAWSON: The 49ers made virtually no attempt to re-sign veteran outside linebackers Julian Peterson and Andre Carter. Coach Mike Nolan believed their production last season did not warrant the kind of contracts they attracted from the Seahawks and Redskins, respectively. The 49ers did nothing to offset the pass-rush potential of those players lost in free agency, but they grabbed someone who should provide some sacks with the No. 22 overall pick. Lawson will line up at outside linebacker in the 49ers' 3-4 scheme. The 49ers do not have any proven pass rushers at the outside linebacker positions, but they expect Lawson to adapt fast and made an immediate contribution. Lawson earned most valuable defensive lineman award his senior season at North Carolina State over No. 1 overall pick and teammate Mario Williams.

RB FRANK GORE: Big things are in the forecast for the second-year running back who last year became the first rookie in 15 years to lead the 49ers in rushing. While rushing for 608 yards, Gore also averaged 4.8 yards a carry – the best mark of any NFL rookie with more than 55 carries. What the 49ers will be watching this summer is how well Gore's body can hold up to an increased role after he underwent surgery to repair a torn labrum in each of his shoulders. While Gore is tough and can be effective playing hurt, he also has had major surgeries on each of his knees and his ability to take the prerequisite pounding of a No. 1 back is in question. But if Gore can put injuries issues aside, many expect him to take the featured role at tailback away from incumbent Kevan Barlow.

C JEREMY NEWBERRY: The two-time Pro Bowl center has been banged up for several seasons. He should be able to begin practice when camp opens, but the question is whether his surgically repaired right knee can withstand the punishment. Newberry gutted out 10 games last season on a right knee that had no cartilage remaining. He underwent extensive surgery in December and reports feeling no pain as camp approaches. If he is able to play and revert back to his Pro Bowl form, the 49ers' offensive line will be stronger and deeper than it has been in a while.

WR ANTONIO BRYANT: The 49ers were eager to dump Brandon Lloyd, their top receiver last season. Lloyd was a regular on the highlight reels with his acrobatic catches, but he refused to go over the middle and he rubbed teammates and coaches the wrong way with his attitude. Bryant has not been immune to problems in his NFL career, but the 49ers believe Bryant is a highly competitive player who has a much better work ethic and desire to succeed on the field than Lloyd. Bryant led the Browns last season with 69 catches for 1,009 yards and four touchdowns. Because of the state of the 49ers' passing attack, it might be difficult for him to improve on those numbers. The big question is how he'll respond when he goes a game or two without seeing many catchable balls come his way.

CB WALT HARRIS: After a fine spring in which the 11th-year veteran displayed fresh legs and entrenched himself with the first-team defense, the 49ers enter the summer still wondering if Harris is the real deal at cornerback, where he has started 127 games in his career. The team desperately needs an upgrade at left cornerback opposite starting right cornerback Shawntae Spencer, and while many envisioned Harris as a complementary part at this stage of his career after the Redskins released him in the spring, he may be the best the Niners have this year at the position and will get an opportunity to play a leading role on their defense if he can sustain his spring showing and hold off the group of unproven youngsters behind him.

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