Smith says 49ers 'all want exact same thing'

When quarterback Alex Smith joined the 49ers as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, the feeling on the team was quite different, he says. The 49ers were coming off a 2-14 season and coach Mike Nolan inherited too many players who were not dedicated to the profession. Nolan and Smith's first two seasons were spent weeding out many of those players.

As the 49ers began their offseason workout program earlier this week, Smith said the atmosphere around the 49ers is positive. And those optimistic feeling were only heightened with the organization's activity in free agency with the signings of cornerback Nate Clements, safety Michael Lewis, linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, defensive tackle Aubrayo Franklin and receiver Ashley Lelie.

"I think this team is excited," Smith said. "I think this team realized the direction we were headed under coach Nolan at the end of last season and what we're capable of."

The 49ers improved to 7-9 last season, including an impressive road victory at Denver in the regular-season finale that knocked the Broncos out of the playoffs. With a nucleus of young players, the 49ers already expected to be improved in 2007.

The 49ers expect to have eight picks in the first four rounds of the draft. But the 49ers did not wait around for the draft to begin improving the roster. Owner John York spent nearly $40 million in guaranteed money to give the 49ers their biggest free-agent haul in club history.

"To see the organization step up and make some moves to better this team, it shows we're all going in the exact same direction," Smith said. "We all want the exact same thing. That's good. It feels good because it makes you feel like you're part of something.

"It's a much different feeling than when I first arrived here. It's much more of a family - much more of a unit. The guys are much more united, much closer, all headed in the right direction, all working together for the same objective and that's much different than when I first arrived. It's fun to be a part of. It's exciting."

The 49ers began their off-season program with a strong showing. The only players under contract who did not attend were the players allocated to NFL Europe and some others who had previous engagements. The club expects everyone on the team to take part in the program.

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Smith and receiver Ashley Lelie were in attendance during the first week of the 49ers' offseason program.

Yet, they never crossed paths. That will change in the second week that begins Monday, when quarterbacks will begin throwing to receivers. The first week of workouts was focused on conditioning and weight work.

Lelie is the front-runner to be Smith's top wide receiver. He is likely to replace Antonio Bryant in the starting lineup. Bryant - whom the team picked up in free agency last year with a four-year, $14 million deal - was released at the beginning of this month after one tumultuous season with the club.

Smith said he looked forward to getting on the practice field and throwing some passes to Lelie.

"There are a lot of routes and throws in this offense that are built on timing," Smith said. "Those are throws, although you might not see him, you still should be able to hit because you've thrown it so many times in the offseason. You get a feel for how they run, how they get out of breaks, and you get a feel for their body language.

"So when the season comes around, when you see something, you can anticipate what the receiver is going to do and be a step ahead."

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Smith did not reveal much about his thoughts on the 49ers' decision to release Bryant, who let down the team in several areas during his one year on the San Francisco roster. Bryant led the 49ers with 733 receiving yards, but encountered off-the-field issues that proved to be a distraction.

Bryant was arrested in November after a traffic stop and faces a May trial on charges of reckless driving and resisting arrest. He also served half of his four-game suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

"I wasn't sure what the coaches were going to do and the front office," Smith said. "I knew they were potentially thinking about it (releasing Bryant). I talked to coach Nolan a little bit about it. I spent a lot of time with Antonio last year and definitely wish him the best. It's unfortunate that it didn't work out."

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Restricted free agent running back Maurice Hicks has not visited any teams, and he has until April 20 to sign an offer sheet. The 49ers would have a week to match, but they would not receive any compensation for losing him.

Hicks' agent, Chad Wiestling, said he has engaged in conversations with "a couple teams." The 49ers tendered Hicks a one-year, $850,000 contract and would like him back to share the backup duties behind NFC rushing champion Frank Gore. Hicks was offered a contract extension by the team last season, but turned down the offer that was reported by sources as "good backup money."

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