Notebook: Excitement on defense carrying over

While much of the discussion involving the 49ers this offseason has revolved around the changes on offense, there is excitement among the ranks with the carryover on defense. The 49ers came on late in the season and finished the year as the NFL's 13th-ranked defense – the team's highest finish since 2003.

With more of an identity this season, several veterans say the 49ers should be a top-10 or, even, a top-five defense.

When Mike Nolan was fired as head coach in the middle of last season, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky scrapped the 49ers' "hybrid 3-4" defense and went with a more basic 3-4 approach. As a result, the 49ers yielded nearly 10 points fewer per game the remainder of the year.

"We know exactly what we run," defensive end Justin Smith said. "We have some new twists and wrinkles it in but we're not straying away from what we do well. I think that's important. We're going to run what we run and do it well. I expect us to be a lot better out of the gate and continue from there."

That is good news to outside linebacker Manny Lawson. In a true 3-4 defense, most of the pass rush is expected to come from the outside linebackers. Lawson might be counted upon to get after the quarterback.

"I enjoy getting sacks," Lawson said. "I enjoy rushing the quarterback. My role has been in coverage and that's what I did, and I did my very best at it."

Lawson, who now weighs 250 pounds, said both outside linebackers will be able to get after the quarterback. Parys Haralson, who led the 49ers last season with 8.5 sacks, lines up on the other side. Lawson recorded three sacks despite often playing exclusively on first downs.

The pass rush was one of the 49ers' weak spots last season. The 49ers recorded just 30 sacks.

"We're sticking purely to a 3-4, and not necessarily having to throw in a bunch of trick-'em stuff," Smith said. "The main thing is having the scheme and the players in place. In the NFL, it's a short window when you can have everybody together so I think we have to take a pretty good shot at it this year."

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During the team's recent two-day minicamp, the candidates competing for the 49ers' starting quarterback position this year practiced together for the first time since training camp last summer.

Coach Mike Singletary said Shaun Hill's play in the second half of last season will be taken into account during the evaluation process against Alex Smith this offseason.

"I factor in everything," Singletary said.

Hill took repetitions with the first team and is considered the leader, based on his performance in 2008, Singletary said. Hill has a 7-3 career record as a starter, including 5-0 at Candlestick Park.

"It's just a matter of us as coaches getting it right and making sure that we pick the right one at the right time," Singletary said.

Smith took part in his first practices since sustaining a season-ending shoulder injury in September. Singletary said he liked what he saw. He took a hefty cut in pay recently to return to the 49ers.

"He and Shaun are doing a good job," Singletary said. "It's going to be real interesting as we continue day-by-day to just see the progression of the quarterback position as well as all of the other guys continuing to make strides."

Both quarterbacks said they are happy with situation. They are good friends, and they are competing. The winner of the competition can count on the backup to have his full support, both men said.

Hill is pleased that he is in a system that he believes will accentuate his skills better than last year's offense.

"I feel more comfortable in Jimmy Raye's system than I did in Mike Martz's system," Hill said.

Martz was fired as offensive coordinator after the season. Nearly a month later, Raye was hired to replace him.

Smith declined to state a preference when asked if the new system is a better fit. After all, Smith did not suit up for a regular-season game last season because a shoulder injury ended his season early for a second straight year.

"I only got to go through the offseason and training camp with coach Martz and I don't really feel I was in it long enough to really answer that," Smith said.

Damon Huard, who played last season for the Kansas City Chiefs, was signed as a free agent earlier this month and will add a veteran presence to the quarterback competition, though he's not expected to be a challenger for the starting position.

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All indications are that Hill and Smith will continue to compete for the starting job. The 49ers pursued free-agent quarterback Kurt Warner, who decided to sign a two-year contract to remain with the Arizona Cardinals.

It is not known if the 49ers plan to get involved in any talks regarding disgruntled Denver Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, who has demanded a trade.

"He's a player under contract and I'm going to stay away from that right now because of what the league rules are," Singletary said.

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Singletary said he knows who leaked a complaint recently that the assistant coaches were being kept out of the loop when it came to free-agent signings. He said he has met with the unidentified assistant.

"I just knew the minute I heard it, who said it. It wasn't a matter of going to the guy and saying, 'Hey, keep your mouth closed.' It was just, 'Hey, guys, come on now. Let's let that go. We're not all going to agree. If you think that was bad, wait till the draft.' "

Singletary said the problem he has encountered keeping information in-house is not the reason he decided to make his coaches off-limits to the media during the team's first minicamp.

"The most important thing for us right now is to really look at getting better," Singletary said. "I want our coaches to focus on doing just that. Offensively, we're a little behind the eight ball. Jimmy Raye and his staff have a lot of work to do to get the guys caught up."

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The 49ers will have two compensatory selections in the upcoming NFL draft, giving them nine selections overall.

In addition to their selections in each of the seven rounds - the No. 10 in rounds 1, 3, 5 and 7 and the No. 11 in rounds 2, 4 and 6 - the 49ers will have the No. 35 selection in the fifth round (No. 171 overall) and the No. 35 selection in the seventh round (No. 244).

Compensatory free agents are determined by a formula based on salary, playing time and postseason honors, according to the NFL. The formula was developed by the NFL Management Council. Not every free agent lost or signed by a club is covered by this formula.

The 49ers' free agents lost in 2008 were Marques Douglas, Kwame Harris, Maurice Hicks and Justin Smiley. The free agents gained were Justin Smith and Bryant Johnson. Therefore, the 49ers' net loss was two.

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Receiver Isaac Bruce did not attend the minicamp, as he continues to ponder retirement. Singletary said he would like to receive an answer by the first of April.

Bruce, a 15-year veteran, was the 49ers' leading receiver last season with 61 catches for 835 yards and seven touchdowns.

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QUOTE TO NOTE: "Anything can happen on draft day, we're still evaluating and looking for the best athlete available. The quarterback position, we're very thankful to have Shaun Hill and Alex Smith competing for the No. 1 spot. I feel very good about what they're doing" -- 49ers coach Mike Singletary on whether the 49ers would take a quarterback with the No. 10 overall pick.

MEDICAL WATCH: Defensive end Ray McDonald, who underwent offseason surgery on his right knee, is expected to be on a limited schedule through most of the offseason. The club expects him to be ready for training camp, but he will probably be worked back slowly. Safety Michael Lewis (sports hernia), cornerback Shawntae Spencer, who sustained a torn ACL early last season, tight end Delanie Walker (right shoulder) and receiver Arnaz Battle (foot) were held out of practices during minicamp.

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