10 things training camp told us about 49ers

The 49ers broke training camp Wednesday, a 25-day summer session that – depending on your point of view – set up San Francisco for an upcoming season of success or vividly showed the team everything it still needs to work on before the real deal begins September 10. Here's a list of 10 primary things training camp told us about the Niners and where they are headed in 2007.

Quarterback Alex Smith is ready to take the next step: Running back Michael Robinson described it this way about San Francisco's third-year QB: "He has a different look in his eyes this year, one more of confidence. Me being in the huddle with him, it's like, ‘OK, I want to go to war and go fight for this guy.'" The change in Smith this summer hasn't exactly been subtle. There has been improvement in several aspects of his game, particularly in his instinctive feel for what to do and where to go in the offense. Mike Nolan says no one player will take the 49ers to the Promised Land, but every team needs a capable QB who can guide them in that direction, and at the tender age of 23, Smith is showing credible signs he is up to the task.

The team got it right with its first-round draft picks: Patrick Willis is going to be a whopper addition to this team. Immediately. When a rookie pushes arguably your best defensive player of the previous season out of the starting lineup during training camp, you know you've got something pretty special going on. The door is open now for Willis to challenge for those Defensive Rookie of the Year honors that come to players that have what he's got. Once Willis gets his bearings when the real games begin, watch out. And Joe Staley? He appears good enough to start right out of the gate too. Kwame Harris has picked it up this summer at right tackle, but that might not even matter. The 49ers will put their best players on the field this season and, well, looked what happened with Willis. The best is yet to come from both of these touted rookies.

The upgrade at wide receiver is considerable, if not dramatic: And not just because the 49ers now have a legitimate No. 1 threat now in Darrell Jackson, who has proven without question he's all that this summer, even if he's not a gung-ho practice guy. Jackson simply knows how to get open and dupe defenders, and he's going to be a significant go-to guy for Smith. But Jackson is only the start of it. Arnaz Battle is an improved player and good starting complement to Jackson, and the 49ers will get some production from their third wideout this year – something Bryan Gilmore simply didn't give them last season – and possibly even their fourth and/or fifth receivers. As Alex Smith said so aptly during camp, "There will be a receiver that won't make this team that probably could have started for us two seasons ago." And that's no lie.

Taylor Jacobs is a player: His emergence as a receiver who can impact this team has been one of the surprises – and feel-good stories – of camp. As Jacobs pointed out to SFI, he always has had the talent, but it takes a lot more to make it in this game at the NFL level. Jacobs has put together the physical with the mental this summer, and what has come forth is a smooth, quick-footed, sure-handed receiver who has looked just about as good as any wideout on the San Francisco roster this summer, and has an extra gear to get open deep.

The biggest weakness is up front on defense: What can you say about a unit that likely won't have two of its three starters face one play of live competition until the regular-season opener? Sure, San Francisco's first line of defense figures to get better when Bryant Young and Aubrayo Franklin can line up side-by-side, but this is a system that needs players to work together, and that's something that only comes with time. Without those two hugely-counted-on veterans in the lineup, San Francisco's front wall has not held up well in the preseason, and there's no guarantee that will change significantly even when they return.

Jim Hostler knows what he's doing: And that's a vital quality to have in your offensive coordinator. The unheralded Hostler is in the background as far as proven offensive minds around the NFL are concerned, but don't be surprised if San Francisco's offense is more diverse and explosive this season because of the wrinkles he has added to the vertical attack put in place last year by Norv Turner. Hostler knows how to mix it up with his game plan, and he seems to have a strong sense of what he has to work with on offense and how to get the best out of the arsenal at hand. There's something to be said for chucking it long, but the short and intermediate passing plays Hostler has added fit Alex Smith well and should make both him and the offense better.

Some depth finally has arrived: Yes, San Francisco's vocabulary – and certainly its roster – has been void of that concept since Terry Donahue gutted the team with his foolhardy personnel moves after the 2003 season. The Niners are no longer dead in the water if some of their front-line players go down, and the competition that depth has added to the team has pushed virtually every player to get better this summer.

The team can survive without Frank Gore: Neither Maurice Hicks or Michael Robinson could fill Gore's shoes as a featured back, but together they are a nice complement of shifty burst and straightforward power. The San Francisco offense revolves around Gore's special talent, but Hicks and Robinson have displayed that the 49ers aren't necessarily doomed should Gore be lost for any significant amount of time. And as dual backups, they'll provide a nice change of pace when the Pro Bowl starter takes a blow on the sidelines.

The secondary will rock: It has yet to be determined if Michael Lewis can get the job done in coverage, but the physical dimension he adds at safety can create a lot of damage to even the best-intended offensive game plans. And, in addition to being the real deal, Nate Clements also has the size and stoutness to stand up to the big receivers (such as those Arizona boys) that have caused the 49ers fits in recent seasons. Throw in a couple of good-looking rookies who could contribute, and a third cornerback who can play at the level of Shawntae Spencer on a good day, and San Francisco's heretofore porous secondary is ready, finally, to make a stand.

They're a better team than last year, and also better than when camp began July 29: That much is plain obvious. As Nolan said, "On paper we got better, on the practice field we got better, in the two games we've played we've been a little better, and we need to stay on that course these next 2½ weeks getting ready for the opener."

But are they a playoff team? That's a big maybe. It's going to take at least a few more months for the 49ers to tell on that one.


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