Ready for prime time? 

Coming off a surprising 7-9 season — highlighted by a star-making performance from running back Frank Gore and some assuring signs of improvement by second-year quarterback Alex Smith — the 49ers enter this season as a legitimate division title contender for the first time in recent memory.

But unlike in seasons past, when Bill Walsh, George Siefert and Steve Mariucci presided over high-scoring teams during the Niners’ heyday, this year’s edition will likely be defined by the progress made on the other side of the ball, as defensive-minded coach Mike Nolan made news with a slew of impressive offseason acquisitions — nearly every one aimed at improving a defense that allowed the most points in the NFL in 2006.

Nolan used six of the Niners’ nine draft picks this year on defensive players, led by Mississippi All-America linebacker Patrick Willis (11th overall selection). San Francisco also acquired Pro Bowl cornerback Nate Clements and hard-hitting safety Michael Lewis via free agency to strengthen a secondary that already has one lockdown corner in veteran Walt Harris, himself a 2006 Pro Bowl selection.

And in a show that his commitment to defense was based on more than just player personnel, Nolan canned defensive coordinator Billy Davis and lured Greg Manusky away from the San Diego Chargers, who finished 10th in the NFL in total defense last year.

The Niners’ defensive improvements make them a much stronger candidate for a postseason berth than last year, but San Francisco’s biggest asset may be their weak divisional neighbors. The Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams are teams with aging veterans whose best seasons are likely behind them and the Arizona Cardinals — well, they’re the Cardinals.

That said, San Franciscans shouldn’t start planning postseason parties just yet — there are still plenty of question marks. Among them is whether Gore and Smith can repeat and/or improve upon their 2006 performances.

FIVE KEYS TO THE SEASON

1 With all of the improvements the 49ers made last season, there was one glaring weakness. Or have you already forgotten the 41-0 drubbing by Kansas City or the 35-point first half two weeks later by San Diego? Defense. While ranking 26th overall (19th vs. the rush, 26th vs. the pass), the Niners surrendered the most points in the NFL. That led to the overhaul that included signing free agents Nate Clements (cornerback), Michael Lewis (safety), Aubrayo Franklin (nose tackle), Tully Banta-Cain (linebacker) and Sam Rayburn (defensive lineman), not to mention drafting linebacker Patrick Willis. Combined with the return of Pro Bowl cornerback Walt Harris and a year of seasoning for Manny Lawson, the new-look defense — switching to a 3-4 formation this year under new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky — could be just good enough for a few extra wins.

2 While Frank Gore’s goal of breaking the single-season NFL record for rushing in a season is admirable, coach Mike Nolan will be happy with the third-year running back repeating his club-record 1,695-yard performance of a year ago, when he took the league by storm. Probably the number that was the most surprising for Gore last year was his 5.4 yards per rush, which was third in the NFL. Gore, who was hampered by a broken bone in his right hand during training camp, was a good target in the passing game, as well, and finished with 2,180 combined rushing and receiving yards, which was fourth in the league.

3 Other than the big free-agent splashes, the Niners’ biggest offseason headline had to do with offensive coordinator Norv Turner leaving to be the San Diego Chargers’ coach. That means that third-year quarterback Alex Smith will be working with his third offensive coordinator. But Nolan promoted Jim Hostler, Smith’s position coach the previous two years, to offensive coordinator, hoping to smooth over the transition.

4 Last year’s buzz was all about how tight end Vernon Davis was going to stretch the offense and provide a dynamic presence. Well, Davis cracked his fibula early in his rookie season, forcing him to miss six games. He did show flashes of brilliance (91 yards vs. Arizona, a 52-yard touchdown against Green Bay). With Eric Johnson gone and the receiving corps lacking an identity, Davis will be on the spot to live up to his hype.

5 Nolan has done a nice job motivating the troops, even when there wasn’t much to fight for. Now that expectations have been raised, the Niners will need to avoid a lengthy losing streak. The schedule starts out tough with a pair of NFC West foes, followed by the 2005 Super Bowl champs and two 2006 playoff teams. Then comes a bye week. — Staff report

FIVE IMPACT PLAYERS

ALEX SMITH

POSITION: Quarterback

HT.: 6-4

WT.: 212

What a difference a year made. Sure, it is cliche, but it was never more appropriate than the difference in Smith from his rookie year to last year. The 2005 No. 1 overall pick threw for 2,890 yards and 16 touchdowns against 11 picks.

NATE CLEMENTS

POSITION: Cornerback

HT.: 6-0

WT.: 215

Signing an eight-year, $80 million contract will put a few targets on your back, but Clements is the type of guy who is able to handle it. The ex-Buffalo Bill has been a steady defender and will provide leadership to a young and talented secondary.

LARRY ALLEN

POSITION: Guard

HT.: 6-3

WT.: 325

Need a reason why the offense was better last year? Allen’s presence on the line was probably the biggest difference. The 14th-year veteran helped shape a raw cast of youngsters into a power-blocking crew that controlled things up front.

MANNY LAWSON

POSITION: Linebacker

HT.: 6-5

WT.: 247

The second of last year’s two first-round picks started 11 games and quickly showed he has the ability to be a dynamic defender. Now that the Niners are converting to a 3-4 scheme, his skills are likely to be put to a bigger test.

DARRELL JACKSON

POSITION: Wide receiver

HT.: 5-11

WT.: 206

Picked up off the scrap heap, Jackson could be just the type of guy to show the 49ers’ inexperienced receivers how to go about their business. After spending seven years in Seattle, Jackson also knows a little bit about winning big games.

ON THE HOT SEAT: OFFENSIVE LINE

Alex Smith made the big strides and Frank Gore had an amazing year — but they didn’t do it alone. Thanks to the big boys up front, the 49ers were contenders at the end of last season and have been a chic pick to make the playoffs this year. To do that, the offensive line will have to repeat — if not improve on — its play of a year ago. Rookie first-round pick Joe Staley knocked Kwame Harris out of the starting role at right tackle based on his play in the preseason. Having veteran guard Larry Allen to provide leadership to an otherwise young group helps a lot, too.

COACH’S CORNER

Every coach has a master plan when taking over a struggling franchise. But even as confident as Mike Nolan is, you would think the position he has the 49ers in is a little bit better than he anticipated. But here is where his coaching skills will come into play. A master motivator, Nolan will have to guard against his troops being overconfident two years after a 2-14 season.

49ers SCHEDULE

Sept. 10: vs. Cardinals- 7:15 p.m.

Sept. 16: at Rams- 10 a.m.

Sept. 23: at Steelers- 10 a.m.

Sept. 30: vs. Seahawks- 1:05 p.m.

Oct. 7: vs. Ravens- 1:15 p.m.

Oct. 14: Bye

Oct. 21: at Giants-10 a.m.

Oct. 28: vs. Saints- 1:15 p.m.

Nov. 4: at Falcons- 10 a.m.

Nov. 12: at Seahawks- 5:30 p.m.

Nov. 18: vs. Rams- 1:15 p.m.*

Nov. 25: at Cardinals- 1:05 p.m.*

Dec. 2: at Panthers- 10 a.m.*

Dec. 9: vs. Vikings- 1:05 p.m.*

Dec. 15: vs. Bengals- 5:15 p.m.*

Dec. 23: vs. Buccaneers- 5:15 p.m.*

Dec. 30: at Browns- 10 a.m.*

* Time subject to change due to flexible scheduling policy

HOW IT WILL END

10-6 OK, so we pored over the schedule and, with a few breaks, the 49ers will max out at 10 wins. Remember, there will still be growing pains, but the pieces are there for a playoff run.


Will the 49ers win the NFC West this year?

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Will Reisman

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