Season in review: Quarterbacks

SFI breaks down the 49ers' 2006 season by position, analyzing what went right and wrong during the year and identifying the changes that took place and the players who stood out during the course of the season. Who's the unit MVP, the biggest disappointment and the biggest surprise? Who overachieved and underachieved? Who's on the rise and on the slide? It's all here. Today: Quarterbacks

Quarterbacks on final 53-man roster: Alex Smith, Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill

Starter in season opener: Alex Smith

Starter in season finale: Alex Smith

Unit MVP: Alex Smith

Top newcomer: Trent Dilfer

Most improved: Alex Smith

Biggest disappointment: Smith's December slump, when he had three consecutive games with a passer rating of 50.1 or lower while the 49ers were in the thick of the playoff contention.

Biggest surprise: Smith, who missed five games with a knee injury as a rookie in 2005, becoming the first quarterback in the 49ers' 61-year history to take every offensive snap over the course of a season.

On the rise: Alex Smith

On the slide: Trent Dilfer. Rust begins to develop on 34-year-old NFL quarterbacks when they spend their 13th year in the league by going an entire season without playing a single snap.

Overachiever: None

Underachiever: None

What went right: A lot. After a very shaky rookie season that had many questioning his worth and validity as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, Smith made great strides in his sophomore season. Not good strides - we're talking great strides. At age 22, while still maturing physically, Smith produced a season that wasn't always consistent, but it did show plenty of promise of him developing into a sure-fire winning NFL quarterback. In fact, Smith was good enough in 2006 to give the 49ers a chance to win on a weekly basis, and he developed a presence at the position - a necessary presence - that was nowhere to be seen in 2005. After a strong start - Smith had a passer rating of 84.8 or higher in each of San Francisco's first three games while throwing for 814 yards without an interception in those contests - Smith had his ups and downs. But he finished with a respectable 74.8 rating for the season, which ultimately placed him 22nd in the league, though he spent most of the season higher in those rankings. Smith displayed improved arm strength and greatly improved accuracy while completing 257 of 442 passes (58.1 completion percentage) for 2,890 yards with 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. In the process, he threw for the most yards by a San Francisco quarterback since 2002 and the most touchdowns since 2003. Smith had several strong individual performances, including a career-high three touchdown passes, 78.9 completion percentage and 120.5 rating in a Week 5 victory over Oakland. His signature performance, however, may have been a Week 15 comeback victory at Seattle in which Smith passed for two touchdowns and ran for another. Smith also displayed some athleticism and ability to escape the pocket while finishing as San Francisco's second-leading rusher with 147 yards on 43 carries, several of which were game-ending kneel-downs. His two rushing touchdowns finished tied for second on the squad. Despite not playing a snap, Dilfer's influence and impact on both Smith in particular and the team in general cannot be underestimated and was a huge positive to come from this position. Even third quarterback Shaun Hill was an upgrade over what the 49ers have had at that position in the past, and he likely is the best the team has had in that role since the 1990s.

What went wrong: Smith hasn't come so far that he still didn't experience some growing pains in 2006. His 16 interceptions tied for the seventh-most in the league and were the most thrown by a San Francisco quarterback since 1993. Though his decision-making was much improved and - on an overall basis - solid, Smith still made some poor throws that resulted in turnovers that contributed to losses. With the 49ers in the thick of NFC wild-card contention in early December, Smith did not respond well when the defenses of New Orleans and Green Bay stacked the box against running back Frank Gore and dared Smith to throw against single coverage. His inability to take advantage of those situations resulted in a three-interception day and contributed to a 34-10 loss to the Saints. Smith had two interceptions the next week against Green Bay in a disappointing 30-19 upset loss at home that was a crippling blow to the 49ers' chances of reaching the postseason. Smith also threw two interceptions in a 41-0 loss at Kansas City, when he was sacked a season-high five times, a total that would be matched twice later in the year. Smith was sacked 36 times for 205 yards in losses in 2006, being dumped three times or more in eight games, but that was not a bad total and he displayed an ability to buy time in the pocket. Smith experienced some trouble locating open receivers and checking down to his second and third options, though he also showed considerable improvement over 2005 in each of those areas.

Looking forward in 2007: The 49ers have to feel good about what they have at quarterback with Smith displaying considerable growth and veterans Dilfer and Hill behind him to offer advice and support and also experience should they be needed to step in. Though Smith still is a work in progress, there were strong indications that he's just beginning to tap his potential, and the experience he gained while taking every snap during a season that offered plenty of challenges on a still-developing offensive unit figures to only help Smith in the future. Now that Smith has established himself as a viable NFL quarterback, he'll face his biggest challenge yet in 2007 - playoff expectations. Many expect the 49ers to take the next step and reach the postseason in 2007, and - as is the case for every individual that plays the most significant position in team sports - it will be Smith that has to lead them there.

Final 2006 unit grade: B-minus. Dilfer's emergence as a team leader bumps up this final mark.

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