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August 11, 2011
Five things to watch in New Orleans

The 49ers face their first true test Friday against a team that has to be considered one of the preseason favorites to reach the Super Bowl. When it comes to evaluating players, Jim Harbaugh said the game won't be as important as the 11 practices that led to it. But it will be very interesting nonetheless for a team that is playing catch-up with teams like the Saints. A few of the storylines to watch:


Chemistry lessons. Quarterback Alex Smith said in June that developing better chemistry with top wideout Michael Crabtree was crucial after the two failed to do so prior to the 2010 season. That's going to be nearly impossible this season with Crabtree likely to miss most, if not all, of the preseason with a foot injury. Instead, Smith will look to bond with newcomer Braylon Edwards. The two have connected a few times so far in training camp, but if you had to pinpoint Smith's "go-to" receiver at this point you'd have to pick tight end Vernon Davis or wideout Ted Ginn. Edwards has mostly worked with the second-team offense and is trying to work through tightness in his legs at the start of camp. It will be interesting to see how much he plays Friday in New Orleans. He's listed as the second-string wideout alongside Lance Long. (Sidenote: Edwards implied on Twitter this week that he'd be switching from No. 81 to No. 18. The guy currently wearing No. 18, Long, hasn't been notified of the plan. Long said today he had no idea Edwards wanted No. 18. Awk-ward.)

Flight of the Condor. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio tried to rein in expectations for first-round draft pick Aldon Smith this week, saying that the rookie still has plenty to learn. That's true. But Fangio's caution could not outweigh the rave reviews Smith has received from teammates, particularly offensive teammates. Smith has two things you can't teach a rookie - strength and ferocity. While he's not a starter, he's been getting just as much playing time with the first-team defense as OLBs Ahmad Brooks and Parys Haralson. The Saints have one of the better offensive lines in the league; how Smith fares against it will be an excellent first test.

Secondary education. The 49ers' biggest rebuilding project this year has been in the secondary. The team added three new prominent players - Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner and Madieu Williams - in the hope of turning what has been a weakness into a team strength. Rogers will start at one of the corner spots. But a youngster promises to play opposite him. Veteran holdovers Shawntae Spencer and Tarell Brown both are injured. That's given Tramaine Brock, Phillip Adams and rookie Chris Culliver a lot more practice time. They, of course, will be matched against the Saints' potent passing attack. Undrafted rookie Cory Nelms, No. 32, also has seen extra action. Another secondary storyline: safety Taylor Mays. A solid outing against the Saints would increase his trade value.

Man in the middle. For the second straight year, the 49ers will open the preseason without their starting nose tackle. In 2010, Aubrayo Franklin, the team's franchise player, had not reported to training camp when the preseason began. This year, Franklin's replacement, Isaac Sopoaga, has a hamstring injury and has not practiced. That means Ricky Jean Francois again will take the lion's share of the snaps at nose tackle. Look for promising undrafted rookie Ian Williams, No. 64, to play there as well. (Williams is the subject of an upcoming ESPN Outside the Lines feature, click here for a preview). Another defensive linemen who hasn't gotten a lot of attention but who is seeing plenty of action is Will Tukuafu, No. 63. He's the first substitute at left defensive end.

Communication lessons. Alex Smith will be the first to tell you that the communication process last year - Jimmy Raye to the sideline to Smith's helmet - was more Pony Express than high-speed cable. The bumbling of the play calling was the perfect symbol for an offense that belonged in a previous era. Friday will be a practice run for Smith, Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who will be in the coach's booth. College quarterbacks don't have a radio receiver in their helmets like their NFL counterparts do. Instead the plays are relayed by hand signals. In that way, Colin Kaepernick, who figures to see the most playing time of any of the 49ers quarterbacks, will be tested inside the New Orleans Superdome. It also will be interesting to see which player has the radio on defense. Dashon Goldson handled that task last year, but newcomers Whitner and Williams are likely to be the starters Friday. Either could have the green dot on his helmet; so could inside linebacker Patrick Willis.

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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