2007 target practice quite inviting to Smith

Look! Over there! A legitimate No. 1 NFL receiver! And over there! A receiver who has led the NFL in yards per catch twice in his career! And over there! A rookie who promises to be the best WR drafted by the 49ers in at least four seasons! Alex Smith, one imagines, almost had to rub his eyes when he took the field Friday at the start of the 49ers' three-day minicamp at team headquarters.

Let's just say the offensive landscape has changed a bit since the last time Smith was limbering up his right arm to zing passes during a full-squad practice.

And needless to say, it looks mighty nice to Smith as he prepares to embark on his pivotal third season with the 49ers, a telltale year for both him as a NFL quarterback and the Niners as a rising NFL franchise.

It used to be during Smith's first two seasons in San Francisco that he'd drop back in the pocket and view into the passing lanes only to see, at best, a mediocre set of receivers working to get open and collect his passes. And most often, worse than that.

But that was then and this is now. After last year's Antonio Bryant disaster, the 49ers spent the offseason upgrading Smith's targets in the passing game, and the NFL's youngest starting quarterback in each of the past two seasons got a first look at the new arsenal at his disposal as the 49ers assembled as a complete team for the first time in 2007.

"Obviously," Smith said, "we've added quite a bit of depth at the receiver position, and I think it's a great thing."

It's a great thing for Smith, all right, particularly when you consider who he has had to aim for at WR during his first two seasons. During Smith's rookie season, the team's leading receiver, by default, was Brandon Lloyd, who could make the occasional acrobatic, highlight-reel catch, but couldn't do a whole lot more. He's a No. 3 receiver in the NFL - at best.

Last year, along came Bryant - the tempestuous and volatile talent - and for a while all seemed well. Bryant was a beast, he played all-out, and he was a pretty darn good receiver, too, who could go deep and provided the team with a legitimate No. 1 threat for the first time since Terrell Owens bolted town after the 2003 season.

Smith immediately developed a long-ball rapport with Bryant, and all was good - heck, better than good - when Bryant began his career in San Francisco with back-to-back 100-yard receiving efforts in his first two games as a Niner.

But six months after that auspicious debut - and less than a year after signing a four-year, $13.9 million deal to join the Niners as a free agent - Bryant was unceremoniously shown the door after his midseason implosion was followed by a December suspension for violating the league's substance-abuse policy.

But now, two months after the 49ers cut their losses by releasing Bryant, Smith may have the best talent around him in the passing game since he joined the 49ers as the No. 1 overall selection in the 2005 NFL draft.

The 49ers replaced Bryant in free agency with sixth-year veteran Ashley Lelie, then scored two other potential playmakers on draft weekend when they selected Washington State product Jason Hill in the third round and traded a fourth-round pick to the Seattle Seahawks for eighth-year veteran Darrell Jackson.

Jackson, Seattle's leading receiver four of the past six seasons, is a safer, saner, and certainly more proven No. 1 threat than Bryant, and now becomes the best great hope at receiver since Owens took his act to Philadelphia.

The new additions promise to not only upgrade San Francisco's starting unit, but also give the 49ers better depth throughout their receiver corps. Smith - while becoming the first quarterback in the franchise's 62-year history to take every snap in a season last year - developed a nice rapport with starting flanker Arnaz Battle in 2006, but the team's No. 3 wideout, veteran Bryan Gilmore, finished last season with only eight receptions.

"Without a doubt, from top to bottom, this is the best we've had since I've been here," Smith said. "Skill level, experience, what guys can bring to the table, the tools they have - absolutely. There's going to be a lot of competition going on out there with those guys consistently into training camp, because there's a lot of them, and they all can play."

Battle, emerging down the stretch after Bryant encountered personal problems, led all San Francisco wideouts with a career-high 59 receptions last year in his second season as a starter. But he may be no better than the team's third receiver this season.

Lelie twice has led the NFL in yards per catch and produced a 1,000-yard receiving season in 2004. Jackson has had three 1,000-yard receiving seasons and was leading the NFL in touchdown receptions last season before injuring a toe in December. Smith has yet to play in the NFL with a receiver who finished a season with more than 733 yards receiving - which, coincidentally, is exactly the same team-leading total Lloyd finished with in 2005 and Bryant finished with last season.

"I have not played at this level with a 1,000-yard receiver," Smith said. "That would be a first for me. But I think it's more of the effect of the threat of the passing game. If we have a few guys that are all under 1,000, but are still producing quite a bit, that can be the same as having one main guy, or even better sometimes."

With his new options through the airwaves, Smith is eager to get started. He's not the deer-in-the-headlights rookie or the impressionable NFL sophomore anymore. He's been through a lot and is better for it.

"Now I know what to expect," Smith said. "I've gone through a couple of seasons, especially last year with all the reps, all the play I got. So I'm very comfortable to take that next step. You get to that level where you're comfortable playing, and your comfortable being out on the field and being in those situations that you can really kind of cut loose and let it go. So yeah, I'm excited about taking it to that level this year, not only for myself, but as an offense.

"I think the key is just be more productive in the passing game. More consistent, I guess I would say. There were a lot of ups and downs last year in the passing game. We're trying to get it to a level where you're productive at a higher level for longer."

As the 49ers conducted a nearly two-hour practice, Smith looked more like a confident veteran than a youngster who won't celebrate his 23rd birthday until Monday.

After making huge strides over his dismal rookie season last year, the 49ers expect Smith to take the next step to winning, playoff-caliber quarterback this season. San Francisco, 7-9 last season, enters 2007 attempting to snap a stretch of four consecutive losing seasons. The 49ers never have had five losing seasons in a row.

"As I've said all along, Alex is the real deal," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "He's a good quarterback, and he's going to be very good. He's got all the things and he's the same guy every day. As he gets better individually, and the surrounding cast gets better, he's just going to get better."

And the surrounding cast at receiver now is definitely better.

"If you look back at the last couple of years, and then to now, to talk about the receiving corps we have now, talk about Frank (Gore) in the backfield, Vernon (Davis) out there (at tight end) - that's a lot of weapons," Smith said. "Definitely the most I've played with.

"I'm in a much different place this year than I was last year - far different. In that sense, my expectations change, now I'm ready to take it to the next level and start expecting to be a good player, expecting to do big things to win games for this team."

And this year, at wide receiver at least, he'll be getting a lot more help.


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