Season preview positional analysis: QBs

SFI will break down the 49ers by position leading up to next Monday night's season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, with key questions facing each unit, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and facts, key arrivals and departures and the bottom line regarding whether the team is better or worse at the position compared to last season. Today: Quarterbacks

When all was said and done at the conclusion of the 2006 season, the 49ers finally could breathe a big sigh of relief.

Alex Smith is not a bust. In fact, he might just develop into one darn good NFL quarterback.

This season will be a major key in that progress, as it typically is for young quarterbacks in their third season as a starter.

But after a dismal rookie season by Smith was followed by substantial improvement last year – and more incremental progress this summer – the 49ers can feel secure that they are on the right track with the No. 1 overall selection of the 2005 draft as their quarterback of the present and future.


At age 23, is Smith ready to take the big step to playoff-caliber quarterback?
It's possible Smith could be the youngest starting quarterback in the NFL this year for the third consecutive season, but he is a mature individual and wise beyond his years after everything he has experienced and endured during his first two seasons with the team. Smith has taken his lumps, to be sure, and it has made him a tougher player who is not fazed by any kind of adversity because he already has been through plenty of that already. He began to display some real play-making ability as he emerged last season, and he gave the 49ers a chance to win on almost every Sunday, which wasn't the case the season before as a rookie. Smith has made it clear that he expects the 49ers to be a playoff team this year, and the only way they'll get there is if he leads the way.

How will the loss of Norv Turner affect Smith's development?
Turner deservedly received a lot of credit for Smith's progress last year, and there is speculation that Smith will struggle to take the next step in his development without Turner around to hold his hand and fill his ear once the real games begin. But the truth is, Turner wasn't missed much this summer because Jim Hostler - the man who replaced Turner as San Francisco's offensive coordinator - was the 49ers' quarterbacks coach the past two years and already has a close working relationship with his young QB. Smith raved about having the offense already installed entering training camp - he was learning a new offense each of his first two summers with the team - and the comfort he has now both in the system and Hostler's tutelage. And Hostler's method of mixing in more short and intermediate passes seems more suited to both Smith's style and strengths.

Will Smith become the NFL's new iron man at QB?
Smith became the first quarterback in San Francisco's 61-year history to take every offensive snap in a season last year, which seemed a little excessive but served its purpose of giving him experience and forcing him to work through each and every situation that came at him. Just the same, the 49ers have a pretty good backup behind Smith in Trent Dilfer, and San Francisco shouldn't hesitate to go to the veteran when the outcome of a game already has been decided. Smith took some big hits last year and displayed great durability, but if something were to happen to force him out of a game, the 49ers would be in good shape with Dilfer, a poised leader who still has some zing left in his 35-year-old right arm. Dilfer led the 49ers during the exhibition season with a passer rating of 106.6.

The bottom line: The 49ers are better at quarterback this season simply because Smith has another season of development under his belt and is tapping into his potential after a rough rookie season. He appeared to take some big steps early in the summer and some tiny steps backward in the final two exhibition games, but he enters the 2007 season a better QB than the one that finished 2006.


UNIT AT A GLANCE

Starter for season opener: Alex Smith
Reserves: Trent Dilfer, Shaun Hill
Key new arrivals: None
Key departures: None
Quarterbacks coach: Frank Cignetti, first year with 49ers, fourth year of NFL experience

Strengths: A sturdy young starter in Alex Smith who is making steady strides in his development and still has plenty of upside. Smith offers good size, a strong arm, a firm grasp of the offense, good mobility and the ability to throw on the run. The 49ers also have a solid backup in Trent Dilfer, who serves not only as a calming influence and mentor to Smith, but also has experience as a starter with four NFL teams and won a Super Bowl with one of them.

Weaknesses: Despite his progress, Smith is still an unfinished product. There is no guarantee he'll find the extra polish he needs to succeed. Smith can be rattled and struggles to adjust and make the easy throw under pressure.

Fact check: Smith had 34 completions of 20 yards or more in 2006 after recording only 13 such plays during his rookie season of 2005.

Vital stat I: 74.8: Smith's passer rating in 2006, nearly double his 40.8 rating of his rookie season.

Vital stat II: 2,890: Passing yards by Smith in 2006, which was 992 more than the 49ers passed for as a team in 2005 when four different quarterbacks started at least two games each.


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