1. Alex Smith has an opportunity: San Francisco ranked 31st in third-down conversion rate and 30th in red zone touchdown percentage last season despite higher rankings in time of possession (fourth) and scoring (11th). The 49ers upgraded their offensive personnel at wide receiver and running back. Now they'll find out whether their starting quarterback can take the offense to another level. Improving the third-down conversion rate in particular seems like a realistic goal. The 49ers did score touchdowns on eight of their final 14 red zone possessions, counting playoffs.
2. Defense can build: All 11 defensive starters from last season remain on the roster. That's a big change from one year ago, when the 49ers parted with Nate Clements, Aubrayo Franklin, Manny Lawson, Travis LaBoy, Takeo Spikes and Taylor Mays. Defensive continuity should help the 49ers become more cohesive on that side of the ball. That's a scary thought for opponents. The 49ers frequently dominated on defense last season while adopting a new scheme and assimilating new players on the fly. They have focused this offseason on little things such as improving communication.
3. Offensive philosophy intact: We could see the 49ers become more enterprising on third down and in the red zone, two problem areas last season. They've added to their offensive weaponry and have a better grasp of the system. But a broader philosophical change would come as a surprise. Coach Jim Harbaugh played for Bo Schembechler at Michigan. He loves a hard-nosed ground game. With a topflight defense and strong special teams, the 49ers should not need their offense to light up the scoreboard most weeks. They will still run their offense with the big picture in mind.
4. Randy Moss is an X factor: A similar lead-in appeared in this space one year ago, but it was Braylon Edwards, not Moss, serving as the headliner. Knee and shoulder injuries prevented Edwards from contributing much. Moss has remained healthy so far. What does he have left following a year out of the game? Even the threat of Moss could help loosen up defenses. The 49ers averaged only 11.5 yards per reception last season, down from 12.8 in 2010.
5. Justin Smith has the hardware: Smith earned first-team All-Pro honors at defensive tackle and second-team All-Pro honors at defensive end. He also won four of the 49ers' team awards for which veteran players are eligible (one of the others was for an offensive lineman, excluding Smith from consideration). His haul included the Len Eshmont Award (most inspirational), the Hazeltine Iron Man Award (durability and dedication), the Perry/Yonamine Unity Award (promoting unity on the team and in the community) and the Bill Walsh Award (MVP).
Earlier: 49ers Camp Confidential.
Parting shot from Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc.: "I certainly understand why they are the consensus No. 1 in the division. They have improved their stable of weapons and Jim Harbaugh will know how to use those players well. The defense remains elite. I just have some questions about how sustainable their level of play is from last season to this season. I'm talking about the turnovers, the injuries, the schedule. Can they keep it up? They were fortunate in those areas. Now, if the Packers are fortunate in those things, I'd say it's fine. They have Aaron Rodgers. That is sustainable. But Alex Smith is still just a caretaker to me. I do believe in the coach. But in a year from now, they'll probably be playing Colin Kaepernick. I think that is why they are adding some of these deeper threats. I'm thinking Seattle can win the division this year. I'm not betting the mortgage on it, but it should be a close race."