Commentary

Camp Confidential: Niners patiently waiting for QB to emerge

Alex Smith is a former No. 1 pick, but he doesn't appear to have much of an edge over Shaun Hill in the 49ers' QB derby, writes Mike Sando.

Originally Published: July 31, 2008
By Mike Sando | ESPN.com

Alex Smith/Shaun Hill Kyle Terada/US PresswireThe 49ers appear to be in no rush to give Alex Smith, left, the nod over Shaun Hill.
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers needed an offensive leader to step forward Wednesday morning and demand better work from his teammates. They needed a big play or inspired words to pump life back into a dismal practice, the type every NFL team endures at some point in training camp.

The 49ers would get neither, which isn't surprising for a team that doesn't have a starting quarterback.

The organization that once chose Steve Young over Joe Montana has not decided between Alex Smith and Shaun Hill. Conventional wisdom says the job will go to Smith, the first player chosen in the 2005 draft, but the 49ers offer no indication they're leaning toward picking him or even rooting for him to beat out his unknown challenger.

The coaching staff has taken pains to make sure Smith and Hill get equal reps. When Hill's weary arm faltered during a recent practice, coaches funneled the forfeited snaps to third-stringer J.T. O'Sullivan, not Smith.

Why not give Smith every chance to win the job? Why give those extra reps to O'Sullivan?

"In fairness to Shaun and Alex, and keeping things the same, and in all fairness to J.T.," coach Mike Nolan said.

The noncommittal approach suggests the 49ers might wait until deep into camp before naming a starter. Making a decision after the second exhibition game would give the starter a chance to work extensively the following week, when the first team generally plays into the second half. But the 49ers have not announced a timetable.

Key questions

1. What will new offensive coordinator Mike Martz mean to the offense?

Improvement.

The St. Louis Rams went from a No. 24 yardage ranking without Martz in 1998 to a No. 1 ranking with him as coordinator the following season. The Detroit Lions improved seven places in Martz's first season as coordinator (2006). They improved five more spots in 2007.

The 49ers fielded the worst offense in the NFL last season.

Martz knows how to exploit matchups and confuse opponents. He also has the credibility to turn locker-room skeptics into believers, a key to any turnaround in San Francisco.

Martz's predecessor, Jim Hostler, stepped into a difficult situation. Without an established résumé at the NFL level, and with Nolan's sometimes doubting him publicly, Hostler had a harder time getting through to players. Credibility shouldn't be a problem for Martz.

2. How much will Martz change the offense for Vernon Davis?

Not much, by all indications. The Martz offense doesn't work at peak efficiency without an outside threat that has the speed to scare defenses. For the first time in his NFL career, Martz is running an offense featuring its best players at halfback and tight end.

Josh Morgan might become that dynamic threat on the outside -- he continues to impress in practice -- but rookie receivers usually need time to develop. They aren't consistent right away.

Martz said he expects Davis' yards-per-catch average to increase from 9.8 last season, which matched the team's league-low average. But it's unrealistic to expect an 80- or 90-catch season from the 2006 first-round choice.

The way Martz sees things, the 49ers need Davis to block and stretch defenses by running deeper routes than tight ends generally run, presenting a big-play threat. They don't need him to catch all the passes.

3. How good are the 49ers on defense?

Good, and getting better, now that outside linebacker Manny Lawson is back from injury and outside linebacker Justin Smith, a former defensive end in Cincinnati's 4-3 scheme, came on board through free agency.

Inside linebacker Patrick Willis already ranks among the league's best players. And don't forget about cornerback Nate Clements.

The 49ers need to improve their pass rush without possessing one dominant rusher. Lawson and Smith give defensive coordinator Greg Manusky the personnel to manufacture a rush the way 3-4 teams often do. The 49ers will have to prove they can deliver one consistently.

Market watch

[+] EnlargeFrank Gore
AP Photo/Tony AvelarFrank Gore is the biggest weapon at new 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Martz's disposal.
Nolan, 16-32 as a head coach, might need to finish .500 or better to keep his job. He certainly needs to handle the quarterback situation and other sensitive subjects with more aplomb.

Running back Frank Gore is coming off an impressive season in which he topped 1,100 yards rushing with a 4.2-yard average despite the 49ers' league-worst ranking on offense. Martz appears to be serious about making Gore a focal point of the offense, both on the ground and through the air. Gore has caught some passes where receivers generally roam. He is the best back Martz has worked with since Marshall Faulk in St. Louis.

Veteran receiver Isaac Bruce is winding down. He's a stopgap solution for a franchise that hasn't drafted receivers with much success in recent seasons. For the first time in a decade, Bruce isn't catching passes from a Pro Bowl-caliber quarterback. The 49ers signed Bruce because he knew Martz's offense and still had enough left to contribute. Defenses no longer fear him, however.

Dashon Goldson is pushing veteran starter Mark Roman for the job at free safety. Even if Roman holds on for now, look for Goldson to take over at some point during the season.

Newcomer to watch

Bryant Johnson. The former third receiver in Arizona will get a chance to start in San Francisco. He doesn't appear suited to play inside, and he has never caught more than 49 passes in a season. Johnson won't have to compete with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin for playing time. That should give him a chance to put up career-best numbers.

Defensive end Kentwan Balmer is another newcomer worth monitoring. The first-round choice provides depth at an important position, but the nature of his position in the scheme means he might not stand out. The defense is set up for the linemen to do the dirty work and the linebackers to make plays.

Observation deck

Lawson is a rare athlete because he's tall with long legs, but not clumsy when left to cover in space. His surgically repaired knee is not yet at full strength, but this should be a bounce-back season for him. … Cornerback Donald Strickland has had a strong camp. He has a chance to be the first cornerback off the bench, although Shawntae Spencer is also among those in the race. Starter Walt Harris could slide inside in the nickel. … The 49ers could start two "Mike" linebackers if they don't feel good about the "Ted" linebacker position. (Ted linebackers do the dirty work, taking on big blockers and allowing the Mike linebackers to roam free and make plays.) Jeff Ulbrich is the leading candidate at Ted, but the prototypical player at the position is bigger and therefore better equipped to keep linemen off Mike linebacker Willis. … Rookie offensive lineman Chilo Rachal has shown he has the physical tools to play if needed. The mental side of the game takes time to develop. … All six 2008 draft choices could earn roster spots, a reflection of the 49ers' depth as much as their drafting prowess. … Receiver Jason Hill appears more comfortable in his second season. General manager Scot McCloughan recently mistook him for the more polished Bruce when watching video of practice. He had to watch the play again to make sure it wasn't Bruce. … Martz sometimes watches the team portion of practice from a distance, to see the big picture better. Some coordinators stand behind the huddle, allowing for easier communication with quarterbacks. When the 49ers practice, the quarterbacks run off to the side to meet with Martz between plays. … Look for the 49ers to favor two basic personnel groupings. Both are one-back sets. One grouping features three wide receivers and a tight end. The other features two receivers and two tight ends. The second tight end, Delanie Walker, has impressed Martz. The 49ers wanted to feature him last season, but their offensive imploded, and Walker never became a serious threat. … Morgan, a sixth-round pick from Virginia Tech, arguably has been one of the more impressive receivers in camp. That isn't necessarily saying much, but Martz and McCloughan think they've found a big-play threat. Morgan's draft stock sagged because he was inconsistent at Virginia Tech and once drew charges for disorderly conduct and obstruction of justice. Morgan has admitted his mistake and called it a regrettable exception. He made one of the best plays of camp Wednesday when he tipped a deep pass to himself despite coverage.

Mike Sando covers the NFL for ESPN.com.