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John Clayton - NFC Big Questions

Over at the World Wide Leader, John Clayton put together a column today discussing the major question each team in the NFC faces entering the 2007 season.  For your San Francisco 49ers, he had the following to say:

Is one of the league's best offseasons good enough to make the 49ers a playoff team?

The 49ers' ultimate goal was finding seven new starters on defense. That might have been a little ambitious, but it was a great offseason for the defense. The additions of cornerback Nate Clements and safety Michael Lewis complete the secondary. Patrick Willis and Tully Banta-Cain, along with Manny Lawson and Derek Smith, form a good linebacking corps. Aubrayo Franklin will help at nose tackle. The key is for Alex Smith to develop at quarterback. That process took a hit with the departure of offensive coordinator Norv Turner to San Diego. Head coach Mike Nolan believes he has that covered with his staff. He helped Smith by adding WR Ashley Lelie and Darrell Jackson to the receiving corps.

When people have asked me how I think the 49ers will do this year, I tell them it depends on how Alex Smith's development continues.  While I am disappointed Norv Turner, I think that Smith is a bright enough guy with enough natural talent to take the next step under his new offensive coordinator.  Jim Hostler was the QB coach the last two years and thus has spent plenty of time with Smith.  Additionally, his new QB coach, Frank Cignetti brings a lot of knowledge and success to the position.

In the end, the development of Alex Smith will fall on the shoulders of Alex Smith.  Personally, I don't think Alex Smith has to be great this year.  His backup, Trent Dilfer, was just good enough for the Baltimore Ravens to win a title.  His role was simply to not make mistakes and let their historically good defense take care of business.  Smith has a much improved defense, as well as a much improved offense to rely upon.  However, Smith will definitely make some plays this year if the 49ers expect to take a big step forward.  Smith has a plethora of weapons at his disposal through the air and on the ground.  With the additions of Darrell Jackson, Jason Hill, Ashley Lelie and even potentially Thomas Clayton, the 49ers are positioned to make a run at the NFC West crown and maybe even make a little noise in the postseason.

Simply put, Alex Smith has to be good this year, but he doesn't have to be great.  Hopefully he realizes what he has working for him and does not try to force the issue.