- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 26, 2007

He looked like a befuddled rookie against the Redskins that October day two years ago.

Alex Smith, the top overall pick the previous spring, was making his second start for the 49ers. In a 52-17 loss, he completed 8 of 16 passes, was intercepted once, sacked five times and suffered a knee injury at the hands of LaVar Arrington.

Flash forward to last month. Granted, it was only a preseason game, but there was Smith challenging Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. Receiver Darrell Jackson was draped by Bailey, but Smith lofted a perfect pass for an 18-yard gain.

Now in his third season, Smith is ready for all comers, even one of the top corners in the NFL.

Consecutive 2-14 seasons are a memory; a five-game improvement last year, the addition of several free agents and Smith’s development are big reasons the 49ers could be the surprise of the NFC this season.

As a rookie, Smith had one touchdown, 11 interceptions, a 97.2-yards-a-game average and a 40.8 passer rating. As a second-year player, Smith had 16 touchdowns, 16 interceptions, a 180.6-yards-a-game average and a 74.8 rating.

“I felt a lot more comfortable than I have ever played before just in knowing what’s happening and reading defenses,” Smith said after the first preseason game. “Everything is really slowing down.”

Already armed with running back Frank Gore, the 49ers traded for Jackson to team with D.C. native Vernon Davis as Smith’s top targets. They also added cornerback Nate Clements, safety Michael Lewis and linebacker Tully Banta-Cain last March in a free-agent spending spree.

“It’s nice that we’re [optimistic], but we’re also realistic,” coach Mike Nolan said. “This is us going into our third year and we’ve been putting this together, building a foundation, putting walls on it and hopefully we can put a room on the thing this year. … I like the expectations, but more importantly, I like the reasons that we have expectations.”

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