Niners' new gold rush

Jason Cole
Yahoo! Sports

SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Despite evidence to the contrary all over his body, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith is not about to chuck his developing NFL career for a role in the Blue Man Group.

On Saturday, Smith's hands and feet were spackled with what appeared to be blue ink, specks of which could also be found around his ears and on his face.

"It's that powder the FBI puts on money," Smith said Saturday during the 49ers' minicamp. "It's invisible until it gets on your body and you mix it with water."

The gag is the work of veteran backup quarterback Trent Dilfer.

"Yeah, Trent got me good today. My socks, everywhere. He's the master of practical jokes."

It is only May, but Dilfer has already picked a good time to lighten the mood. San Francisco spent the offseason loading up on players, from cornerback Nate Clements in the highlight of free agency to speedy Patrick Willis as the first linebacker off the board in the NFL draft.

An aggressive offseason, however, has brought expectations.

"There's no question that we've amped up expectations because of the players we signed, who we picked in the draft, and I think people believe in what we've been doing the past two years," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "This year, people see the progress we've made. But we're still the '06 team until we start playing the '07 season. We're still a 7-9 ball club.

"I think the expectations are legitimate, but talk is cheap. … You have to continually educate your players about what we're talking about. You can't just get all hyped up and expect to win. You get your brains beaten out that way. There has to be a level of maturity among the guys.

"We're in competition with (the expectations). It's out there and being said, so it's on my mind all the time."

Over the past weekend, the San Francisco organization got its first look at a team that it hopes can return the franchise to glory.

While NFL minicamps may be as meaningful as a desperate courtroom apology from Paris Hilton, anyone who has watched the 49ers during coach Mike Nolan's three-year reign can tell one thing immediately: This team – put together under the direction of Nolan and vice president of player personnel Scot McCloughan – is far more talented than it was two years ago.

Not that the talent bar was particularly high back then. When Nolan took over in 2005, he had a squad that might not have been able to keep pace with USC.

"We talked about trying to compete," McCloughan said of the tough times. "But the reality is that we didn't have enough players then. It wasn't good. There were times I just couldn't look (because) it was so bad."

The building process was deliberate the first two years but has undergone a serious acceleration this offseason. Flush with cap money for free agency, San Francisco brought in Clements and safety Michael Lewis for a combined $31.8 million in guaranteed money and added wide receiver Ashley Lelie and defensive end Tully Banta-Cain. Wide receiver Darrell Jackson was acquired via trade on the weekend of the draft, which featured four picks on the first day including Willis and offensive tackle Joe Staley in the first round.

Welcome to the strongest NFL facelift since Jerry Jones had some work done.

But in paying the likes of Clements and Lewis and giving running back Frank Gore an extension after only two years, the 49ers have set up all the traps that go with big spending. False comfort and confidence are issues that have plagued the NFL since the start of free agency in 1993, when teams started learning the realities of paying guaranteed money.

"You don't want to sign a guy who won't handle what's going on," Nolan said. "The two top guys (Clements and Lewis) we signed, they've been through it before as first- and second-round draft choice guys. So at least they have faced that.

"But if you felt like that was an issue, I'd be reluctant to sign them. If you can't handle that (the pressure of the money), you're not going to handle the pressures on the field. Especially a corner. If (Clements) can't handle the money, how's he going to handle the players?"

For his part, Clements said all the right things about his free-agent payday. "You just have to come in and do your job and let other people do theirs," he said.

Still, money always creates some controversy. Nolan and McCloughan are concerned about the reaction in the locker room, where there is already one sore spot involving guard Justin Smiley and his demand for a new contract. The sides are far apart on a new deal, so there is some concern Smiley could make an issue of the situation just before training camp.

There's another issue that goes with the cash: expectations by the player himself start to skyrocket.

"That's absolutely the case when you come in having gotten a lot of money," said Smith, who was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft and received $25 million in guarantees. "I remember coming in here and thinking, 'They didn't get me to come in and throw checkdowns.'

"I remember that everybody was looking at me, seeing what I was going to do and I was trying to make every impossible throw you could possibly make. I completely got out of what I was – a guy who takes the open throw, is smart with the ball. It cost me all that first year."

All of this mind management is piled atop a much simpler objective: The 49ers still must get better. In particular, their still-youthful offense has a ways to go.

On Sunday, as the team went through practice, both Gore and tight end Vernon Davis, the No. 6 overall pick in 2006 blessed with stunning speed, dropped easy passes. Gore's drop was a potential touchdown throw in a red-zone drill.

Then there's Smith. In that same red-zone drill, he got ready to throw a seam pass to tight end Billy Bajema, but Smith stared down the throw about half a second too long. Being a beat too slow was a killer as linebacker Jeff Ulbrich closed on the play, got a hand on the ball and deflected it away.

As the defense whooped it up at the expense of the offense, Smith looked down and pretended to throw the pass again. He was frustrated, but not exactly dejected.

Or, in keeping with the theme of the weekend, he was almost blue.

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