The training camp wrap
Most improved player: He had some competition for the honor, considering how a young team grew during four weeks of summer, but Alex Smith has taken a 180-degree spin from where he was in his development when the season began last year. Nobody gave the kid much slack last year when he was thrown into the deep end well before he'd finished his NFL swimming lessons, but Smith learned to stay afloat the hard way, and the progress and presence he displayed the past month was considerable if not dramatic. Camp MVP: Antonio Bryant dominated on a daily basis, in the morning and in the afternoon, a man on a mission who never let up from the start of camp to the end of it, snagging passes of all varieties and competing regularly quite like no one else on the team. Best new addition: There are upgrades most everywhere you look on the roster, but no newcomer has brought more to one position than Bryant has at wide receiver, where he takes the place of Brandon Lloyd as the team's No. 1 wideout and adds a lot more talent, drive and production to that space. Worst comeback: Jeremy Newberry's, only because it's already over before it really even began. But you can't blame a true warrior for trying. Newberry gave it all he had during the first week of camp, but his damaged knees simply wouldn't cooperate. Best big brother: Trent Dilfer had a considerable impact on Alex Smith just by his presence alone this summer, as has been the case since Dilfer arrived in May, and that will continue once the going gets rough in the regular season and the second-year quarterback needs an experienced shoulder to lean on. Best trade: With several of their youngsters failing to distinguish themselves, the 49ers desperately needed to add more veteran talent at receiver, and while we won't really know what Taylor Jacobs can bring before the end of August, swapping him for disappointing cornerback Mike Rumph - who wasn't going to make the team - certainly was worth the effort. Worst trend: Another former first-round pick lopped off the roster when Rumph was traded away. That makes five first-rounders from this decade alone to leave the team since February. Best trend: Nine 49ers traded in the past 13 months, two of them being sent elsewhere since training camp began. When a team has won six games in two years, some of the faces definitely need to change. Worst comment of things to come: This coming from Barlow last week when he was asked if he and other holdover veterans wonder if they might be the next to be shown the door: "I ain't going to comment on that question. No comment on that. I just told you I ain't worried about it. I'm not worried about it, you know what I mean? Coach Nolan told me, he told you. I'm not worried about being traded. I'm here. … I hope." Worst bashing: This coming from Barlow on Tuesday, two days after he was traded to the New York Jets, when he called Nolan a "liar," whose tight grip on the team has San Francisco players "uptight and walking on eggshells," among other things: "(Nolan) doesn't know what he's doing. He has too much power as a first-time head coach. He walks around with a chip on his shoulder, like he's a dictator, like he's Hitler. People are scared of him. If it ain't Nolan's way, it's the highway." Best return: After missing most of training camp last year and all of the 2005 season, tight end Eric Johnson came back with a vengeance from his foot injury and became both a regular and reliable target in the team's passing plans. Best burrowing: When Frank Gore hits a pile of bodies, he somehow finds a way to slip through it or move it five yards forward. The team's new starting tailback didn't look to bad this summer in the open field, either. Worst achy knee: Arnaz Battle's chronic right knee problems look like they're going to follow him around and limit his effectiveness for a second consecutive season, which may do the same to San Francisco's production at wide receiver, since he's penciled in as the team's No. 2 wideout. Best new development: A San Francisco offense that has a pulse. After finishing dead last in the NFL in total offense in 2005, the 49ers appeared to make considerable strides in new offensive coordinator Norv Turner's system. "I definitely think we're turning that corner for the better," Smith said. "I think there's definitely signs of growth and confidence in this offense to where we can take it to another level where I don't think this organization has been in a little while." Best non-declaration: We didn't once hear coach Mike Nolan going out of his way this summer to make bold claims about the 49ers taking back the NFC West, which seemed more and more ridiculous as he kept repeating that statement last year. Quickest comet out of nowhere: Admit it, you never heard of Delanie Walker until he started running over people and collection huge chunks of yardage returning the football, rushing the football and catching the football in his first professional game. Walker flashed a lot of the same ability as one of the young stars of camp. He played at a college called Central Missouri State, so that did a pretty good job of keeping his talent under wraps and forced him to wait until the sixth round of the draft for the NFL to call. But now the secret is out. Best rookie: Despite the impressions made by Walker, he'll have to wait in line for playing time behind another tight end who was selected 169 slots ahead of him in the draft. Vernon Davis came along gradually during camp, but he has all the tools and diligently paid his dues learning the dirty work. Davis is can't-miss, and as the NFL game comes to him, he's one guy who's going to go out and get it. Best subtraction: Derrick Hamilton didn't do a thing for the 49ers in his first two years with the team, he didn't do anything for them this summer after being hurt in the opening practice of camp, and he wasn't going to do anything for them this season before the team finally cut its losses and released the 2004 third-round draft pick two weeks ago. Biggest surprise: Maybe Sammy Davis doesn't deserve it, but some were considering him as a first-round bust along the lines of the guy he was traded for earlier this year, Rashaun Woods. But while Woods slipped out of the NFL this summer, Davis asserted himself as a fixture in the 49ers' 2006 plans at cornerback. Worst indication of things to come: San Francisco 28, Chicago 14 on Aug. 11. It was a surprisingly dominant performance in the Niners' preseason opener, but not really an accurate gauge of where the team really is at this point, as the following week's 23-7 loss at Oakland vividly displayed. Best side of beef : The left side of San Francisco's offensive line, where Larry Allen and Jonas Jennings looked awfully comfortable working together as they paired their collective girth. Worst injury: 1. Andre Torrey's torn knee ligaments, which put him on injured reserve. 2. Parys Haralson's foot injury, which will keep him out into the regular season. 3. Shawntae Spencer's hamstring, which will keep him out the rest of the preseason. Best ballhawk: Before he was injured last week, Spencer was establishing himself as perhaps San Francisco's best defensive back, and he was consistently putting himself in position to make a lot of plays on the football. Worst hands: Rasheed Marshall had a lot of drops this summer, and he's a guy who couldn't afford many. Quickest separation from 2005: Releasing Bruce Thornton and Ben Emanuel a few days apart near the start of camp, sending away two young players who combined to start 18 games in San Francisco's often-embarrassed secondary last season. Best resilience: A lot of people didn't think Kwame Harris was for long as the starting right tackle when training camp begin, but the big guy improved his game and stepped up to the challenge provided by Adam Snyder this summer. Worst new development: The inability of the 49ers to create a pass rush with the new personnel they have in key defensive spots. Rookie Manny Lawson should be fine in time, Nolan says, but that doesn't help the Niners in the now as they break camp, because he might be the best they've got. Best graybeard: The dozen years of NFL experience already in the tank say the clock is ticking on Bryant Young, but the most-tenured 49er still looks and talks like he has plenty left, and the 49ers wisely paced him this summer to save him for the real games in September.
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