Originally Published: September 2, 2010
Mike Tedesco/US Presswire JOHN CLAYTON QB RANKING (21): Entering his sixth season, Alex Smith is looking to build off a solid 2009 performance and lead the 49ers to the playoffs.

Expert Picks (Consensus: 1st)

Intelligence Report

Five things you need to know about the 49ers:

1. There's no QB controversy: The 49ers emerged from the offseason committed to Alex Smith as their starter. That wasn't going to change if David Carr outplayed him this summer and it certainly wasn't going to change with a couple decent outings from third-stringer Nate Davis. After going through five offensive coordinators in five seasons, the 49ers made 2010 all about continuity. They brought back offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye. They stuck with the same system. They brought aboard an offensive line coach with experience in Raye's system. And even though the 49ers could have pursued Donovan McNabb, their emphasis on continuity led them back to Smith for at least one more season.

2. The 49ers fixed their defensive weakness: For years the 49ers lacked speed at safety. It was the one glaring weakness on that side of the ball. That has changed in a big way -- in 2009 with Dashon Goldson's emergence at free safety and this offseason with Reggie Smith's surprising development. Smith has gone from disappointing cornerback to the first safety off the bench, ahead of second-round rookie Taylor Mays. The 49ers appreciate Mays' raw talent. Mays has outstanding speed. He can hit. He's hungry. It's just that Smith is the more polished player. The bottom line is that the 49ers have speed at safety and lots of it, whether it's Smith or Mays.

3. Frank Gore's durability isn't a huge issue: Concerns about the Pro Bowl running back's durability are justified on one level. Gore has, indeed, been banged up in recent seasons. Sometimes the fears have been overblown. Gore has never missed more than two games in any season. He has rushed for at least 1,000 yards in each of the past four seasons. He had 10 rushing touchdowns and three receiving touchdowns last season even though he did miss some time. Both were career highs. He lost only two fumbles, his lowest total since his 2005 rookie season, when he started only one game.

4. The 49ers could start slowly: The 49ers are breaking in young talent on their offensive line and they could have issues playing three of their first four games on the road. Seattle will be a rough place to play a season opener from a noise standpoint. The team then faces the New Orleans Saints at home on Monday night, followed by trips to Kansas City and Atlanta. The 49ers could easily open the season with a 1-3 record if they're not careful. It will not mean they're doomed, but it could put a damper on preseason predictions favoring the 49ers as NFC West champs.

5. Michael Johnson gets overlooked: Raye and line coach Mike Solari get most of the attention on the 49ers' offensive staff. That makes sense. Both play prominent roles. Don't forget about quarterbacks coach Michael Johnson. He's done a pretty good job helping Smith revive his career, and if Smith enjoys a breakout season, Johnson would seemingly be in line for a promotion. Johnson could qualify as a successor at coordinator if Raye, 64, does decide to step away at any point in the coming years. The 49ers could do worse, from all appearances.

-- Mike Sando, ESPN.com

Scouts Inc.'s Fabulous Five

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