Craig Massei: You are correct that the expectations are higher than ever for Smith, and that's sort of intertwined with the expectations of the team. It's Year 3 for Smith as a NFL starting quarterback - and that's the year that young quarterbacks are expected to take the biggest leap in their development. It's also Year 3 of the Mike Nolan era in San Francisco - and that's the year of a new program that a previously downtrodden team is expected to win again. It's not going to happen for the 49ers unless Smith takes the next step in his development, which he certainly did last year after a horrible rookie season. One thing to remember about Smith: He turned 23 in May and very well could be the youngest starting quarterback in the NFL this season for the third consecutive year. He's still a little wet behind the ears.
That said, Smith has looked every bit this spring like a quarterback who is ready to play winning football. He has always been mature emotionally, but now he's maturing in both the mental and physical aspects of the game, too. He knows the offense, knows where to go with the football, his decision-making is crisp and he's getting much sharper with his passes. It hurts that he has to start over with a new set of receivers for the third consecutive year, but he developed a favorite target this spring with phenom tight end Vernon Davis, and the talent at receiver has been substantially upgraded. There once was a concern that Smith might be a bust; now the question is if he can be a great QB someday. Nobody expects him to get there in 2007, but he's very well on his way to being a good QB - if he isn't there already. Expect him to be a quarterback that's good enough to win this season.
DF: Jim Hostler, Smith's former quarterbacks coach, will be San Francisco's fifth offensive coordinator in the last five seasons. How do Hostler and Smith work together, and what sort of changes might happen with the desire for a vertical offense in 2006?
CM: The best thing that could have happened to Smith - and probably for the entire San Francisco offense - was for Hostler to take over as offensive coordinator. Hostler was San Francisco's quarterbacks coach the past two seasons and has worked closely with Smith since he was drafted. So, while Norv Turner played a big role in Smith's development last year, so did Hostler, and Smith has looked assured this spring running Hostler's offense, which is much more diverse than the vertical system Turner ran last year and took with him to become head coach of the San Diego Chargers.
Hostler says San Francisco's offense sometimes will look just like Turner's system, but it will never look the same all the time thanks to the West Coast principles he has incorporated. The new hybrid attack appears well suited to the skills of Smith, who appeared to prosper this spring using concepts he learned from the different systems the 49ers ran during his first two seasons (San Francisco ran a version of the West Coast system under coordinator Mike McCarthy in 2005).
DF: Between blocking fullback Moran Norris and halfback Frank Gore, the 49ers might have had the NFC's best backfield in 2006. Both players received lucrative extensions in the offseason. Is there any reason we shouldn't expect the same sort of record-breaking production this season?
CM: The only reason I can think of would be injury or a bolt of lightning striking one of them on the forehead on his way into the team facility. Gore has looked better than ever this spring and is so determined to make a run at 2,000 yards this year that he can barely contain himself waiting for the season to begin. He has lost about five pounds to add a little quickness and, as he puts it, "finish my runs."
Norris is just an out-and-out beast in front of Gore who also figures to get a few more carries and passes thrown his way this season. Norris was as good a blocker in his first season with the 49ers than Fred Beasley - a 2003 Pro Bowler - ever was. And Beasley was a darn good blocker who paved the way for Charlie Garner, Garrison Hearst and/or Kevin Barlow to produce 1,000-yard seasons in four of the five seasons Beasley was the full-time starter. Gore, obviously, is headed for another one of those - and maybe much more.
DF: San Francisco's receiver corps has been overhauled again, which must be good news for Alex Smith. Former Seahawk Darrell Jackson and Washington State speedburner Jason Hill join Arnaz Battle to form what could be a boon for the offense if it all works out. The potential downside seems to be that Jackson still has turf toe issues, Hill is a rookie and Battle might be better as a complementary receiver. How do you think the receiver situation will shake out?
CM: Well, you have to throw Ashley Lelie in there, because the team gave him a two-year deal with a $2 million bonus in March with the expectation that he can challenge for a starting position and stretch defenses with his speed. Battle is an underrated player who is fearless, catches everything and does a lot of the dirty work like blocking downfield, and he had a very good spring while continuing to develop a rapport with Smith. Jackson (toe) and Lelie (quad) both sat out spring workouts with injuries, but they are expected to be full-go for the start of training camp, and if either can live up to some of the better things they've done earlier in their careers, the 49ers are going to have their best WR corps since 2003 and a lot more ammunition for Smith to work with.
I'm not sure what to make of Lelie, who comes with a lot of baggage, but Jackson is a perfect fit for what the 49ers want to do with their offense, Battle is a solid gamer, Hill has a lot of potential, and there also is a pack of other holdover veterans/young prospects who could fight their way into picture, including 2006 third-rounder Brandon Williams, the team's punt returner, and 2005 seventh-rounder Marcus Maxwell. The latter led NFL Europa in receiving touchdowns this spring on his way to all-league honors and a World Bowl title, catching two more TD passes in the championship game.
DF: The offensive line was a pleasant surprise in 2006. Are there any issues that could lead to a decline in 2007?
CM: Actually, the offensive line is the strength of the entire team. Expect a boost in performance as the young players the 49ers are grooming to become starters push the regulars in front of them. Justin Smiley, for instance, is one of the better young guards in the game, but he is being pushed heavily by 2005 second-rounder David Baas, who the team can't keep on the bench much longer. 2003 first-rounder Kwame Harris has started each of the team's 32 games the past two seasons at right tackle, but he is likely to be forced out as a starter this year by either Adam Snyder or Joe Staley, whom the team selected in the first round of the April draft.
Eric Heitmann, who broke his tibia at Seattle in Week 15, has already recovered enough to participate in spring drills, and he's developing into one of the NFC's better centers. Larry Allen is back at left guard after reaching the Pro Bowl last season, and Jonas Jennings is a solid left tackle when he can stay healthy and keep himself in the lineup. This should be a very good line again this season, but the 49ers may try to accelerate the progress of some of their youngsters as the contracts of Allen, Harris and Smiley all are up at the end of the season.