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Niners buzz picking up steam

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Dan Arkush
Executive editor

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Posted June 28, 2010 @ 9:29 a.m. ET
By Dan Arkush

It's relatively quiet on the 49ers' front at present, with the team pretty much shut down until July 30, when rookies report for training camp, followed by veterans one day later.

But inquiring minds still have plenty to reflect about, since for the first time in what seems like a very long time, the Niners are widely considered legitimate playoff contenders.

There are some observers, such as former Niners RB Roger Craig, who have gone as far as to proclaim the team a sleeping giant, a team that possibly might be even capable of making a "Super" leap in 2010.

While a Super Bowl berth still seems like a major stretch, making a leap to the top of the NFC West is a different story altogether, with numerous so-called people in the know, including the people at Pro Football Weekly, predicting that the Niners will overtake the Cardinals as division champions.

Optimism abounds, both on and off the field, with an organization for all intents and purposes now fully under the direction of young buck Jed York, who is beaming over the prospect of a new 68,500-seat state-of-the-art stadium in Santa Clara as early as 2014.

The biggest reason for optimism on the field remains the team's versatile, opportunistic defense, under the direction of the very underrated Greg Manusky, which continued to make major strides last season, particularly against the run.

There was cause for some alarm earlier this offseason when a host of key defenders (NT Aubrayo Franklin, OLB Manny Lawson and CBs Shawntae Spencer and Nate Clements) opted to steer clear of organized team activities, primarily due to contract concerns. But that alarm subsided significantly when they all showed up for the team's final mandatory minicamp.

On the other side of the ball, the reports on QB Alex Smith have been overwhelmingly positive. Benefiting from Jimmy Raye being his first offensive coordinator for two years in a row, the former No. 1 overall draft choice has never shown so much confidence and command.

There was no hesitation in Raye's reply when he was asked a few weeks back if this was the best that Smith has looked.

"This early, yes," Raye said. "This early, it is. There was a stretch of time during the fall, the second half of the year, where he was really on the spot throwing the ball. ... It's a lot better than it was a year ago at this time. There's a lot more confidence, and his velocity is better, his footwork is improved.

"From that respect, it is."

Another big reason for optimism is the apparent continued maturation of Mike Singletary.

The Niners' strong-willed head coach entering his second full season did raise some eyebrows recently when he said he was planning on continuing to make "Nutcracker" drills a necessary evil in training camp despite a rash of early injuries resulting from those drills last season.

But Singletary also raised his level of respect among daily team observers when he said he was going to make a conscious effort this coming season to exercise more self-control on the sideline — a very good idea considering how much he has stressed the need for the same thing from his players.

The serious competition at most positions so far this offseason, especially for backup jobs, is also very much worth noting. While a big deal has been made of the ultracompetitive atmosphere being promulgated by new Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll, who continues to come off as if he's guzzling Red Bull nonstop every time he is quoted, Singletary has hardly been a slouch along those lines.

Suffice it to say, the Niners seem very pumped up, ready to pound the rock and flat-out overpower every team that stands in their way.

Are there some concerns? Absolutely.

The secondary still appears to lack sufficient deep speed, the lack of a return specialist capable of consistently fielding punts continues to be a big problem, and the team is playing with fire in its ongoing contract impasse with Franklin, who has yet to sign his $7 million franchise tender.

All that said, it's easy to see why a bona fide pro football buzz continues to pick up steam on the streets of San Francisco, the current leaguewide inactivity notwithstanding.


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