Rebuilding starts on offense

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Sometimes, drafts aren't complicated. Often on draft day, you see general managers and coaches scrambling in their draft rooms like stock brokers in the midst of a massive sell-off.

Not in San Francisco. Mike Nolan inherited one of the league's toughest coaching jobs, but in terms of talent acquisition, the decisions have been easy. When the cupboard is bare, the solution is simple -- take the best athletes available. As much as Nolan would love to follow the blueprint of his former general manager with the Ravens, Ozzie Newsome, and stockpile defensive parts, the board dictated that the 49ers went mostly with offense in the past two drafts.

"What a lot of teams do is they make the draft board fit their needs, and that's a bad deal," Nolan said. "I bet you two thirds of the teams in the league do it that way. That's why there are so many mistakes. Our team has a lot of needs and the board has worked in our favor for two years."

Nolan related an incident from the 2005 draft. The 49ers had selected Alex Smith with the first pick and awaited the top selection in the second round. Owner John York anticipated a flurry of activity in the room. On the board, the 49ers were looking at tight end Heath Miller, defensive tackle Mike Patterson, guard Logan Mankins and guard-center David Baas. The 49ers patiently sat and waited and watched the names go in order. They were prepared and drafted Baas when their turn rolled around.

With the announcement this past weekend that center Jeremy Newberry is out for the season awaiting microfracture surgery, the 49ers look brilliant with the selection of Baas. He will be the starting guard while Eric Heitmann gets the nod at center. Baas already has become one of the best on the line in San Francisco.

"We do take the best players on the board," Nolan said. "Our owner said during that draft, 'This is one of the most boring things I've ever been through.'"

The results of the past two drafts, though, are generating some excitement. As Nolan and York look around the practice field, they are seeing better athletes and better competition. No, the 49ers aren't the 49ers of old under Bill Walsh. They aren't deep, but slowly, the cupboard is filling up.

That was particularly noticeable during the 49ers' preseason opener against the Bears on Friday, when Smith completed 16 of 21 passes for 137 yards. A year ago, Nolan had no choice but to throw Smith to the NFL wolves and hope he would survive. He didn't. Smith ran around with little hope of success. Receivers were slow and unproven. The offensive line, which was under total renovation, had holes. Sure-handed tight end Eric Johnson was hurt.

Smith looks better this year and part of the reason is the talent around him looks better. Antonio Bryant is a proven go-to receiver coming off a 69-catch, 1,009-yard season in Cleveland. Arnaz Battle has some shifty moves. Eric Johnson is back and the 49ers drafted Vernon Davis, who is an athletic freak at the tight end position. Davis is a big target with 4.38 speed.

In the backfield, Smith has Kevan Barlow and Frank Gore. To make life even better for him, the 49ers traded for Trent Dilfer to be his backup. Dilfer's former teammate Matt Hasselbeck credits Dilfer with aiding in his development into one of the NFL's top quarterbacks. All of a sudden, Smith isn't alone.

"Last year I didn't have that veteran quarterback to help me," Smith said. "It's hard if you want to be successful as a rookie quarterback. It was tough last year. First of all, I've always been in the shadows during my whole career. I didn't have that spotlight on me until I got here. Here I was in my first practice, and there were 50 photographers out there watching me stretch."

Despite being the first pick in the 2005 draft, Smith likes the idea that he's back in the shadows again. Around the league, everyone knows the 49ers are in the rebuilding mode. Expectations are low. Most people have the 49ers and Jets battling it out for the top pick in next year's draft. What will surprise those forecasters is that Nolan and Company have picked their spots and improved the team dramatically -- particularly on offense.

Future Hall of Famer Larry Allen was added as the left guard. The 49ers have a healthy Jonas Jennings at left tackle. And one of the most exciting additions to the team is offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who introduced Troy Aikman at his induction into the Hall of Fame.

Of all the people Aikman could have chosen, he picked Turner. That's a comforting thought for a young quarterback such as Smith.

"First of all, this was not a real talented offense last year, and Alex took his lumps," Turner said. "If you go back and look at the first-rounders who were high draft choices, they go with bad teams and take their lumps. At the end of last year, he was better and he reached a comfort level you need to play. The big thing is he is a very, very accurate passer."

While Smith completed just 50.9 percent of his passes last season, he has a chance to be more accurate this year because of the added talent around him. Turner worked with Smith on his drop-backs from center, trying to get him to speed up his release. Now, he looks more fluid. Turner has him rolling out more to give him more options. Smith surprised Turner with the results.

"He didn't miss many throws this spring," Turner said. "Plus, his deep arm is as good as any young player I've been around. He can throw a long way and the ball carries."

Turner already has gained enough confidence in Smith that he's allowing him to use his best asset -- his mind. Smith had one of the highest Wonderlic scores in recent years for quarterbacks. Turner plans to use Smith's feet, his accurate arm and his brains.

"He didn't miss many throws this spring. Plus, his deep arm is as good as any young player I've been around. He can throw a long way and the ball carries."
Norv Turner on 49ers QB Alex Smith

"In the West Coast Offense, so much of everything is progressions," Smith said. "It's very formatted, very cookie-cutter because it's been around for such a long time. You have to follow the progressions. This is one. This is two. This is three. This is the checkdown, no matter what. We're not as formatted with his offense."

From the looks of the first preseason game, Turner has found a few strategies to help Smith battle his worst enemy -- blitzing defenses. Last year, opponents blitzed him relentlessly and Smith had few answers. The line constantly battled injuries. There weren't enough play-makers for him to dump the ball to.

Now, Turner has Smith rolling out more. If teams are going to blitz, those defenders are going to grow tired chasing him for 20 to 30 yards, not knowing where Smith is heading.

"By the end of last season, we made it so easy on the blitz," Smith said. "When we played teams later in the season, the blitzes doubled, and they were real imaginative. I think unless you burn some teams, they are going to keep coming."

The 49ers have had seven first-day draft choices -- rounds one through three -- during Nolan's first two seasons, and six of them have been on offense. The 49ers admittedly are a draft or two away from replenishing the defense.

The 49ers could not go wrong rebuilding the offense first because that's what their ratings dictated. The 49ers needed everything, and Nolan's plan slowly is bringing them back to respectability.

John Clayton is a senior writer for ESPN.com.