SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -Nate Clements and Michael Lewis now dress in the same lockers recently occupied by marginal NFL defensive backs. Vernon Davis and Darrell Jackson now catch the passes Alex Smith once threw to receivers he had barely met.
Everywhere the San Francisco quarterback looks this summer, Smith sees the fruits from two years of steady progress and a surprising offseason spending spree by a once-proud franchise moving deliberately up the long road to title contention again.
``It's nice to know what to expect, what to anticipate,'' said Smith, the former No. 1 pick who took every snap as a second-year pro last season. ``It's nice to have the offense installed before you come into training camp. We're so much further along than we were in my first two years. ... If this team played that team (from 2005), it wouldn't be very close.''
Yes, Smith's fans already know the 49ers are quite capable of beating themselves. That's been part of the problem during four consecutive losing seasons for the franchise that won five championships and reinvented offensive football.
But Smith and coach Mike Nolan believe they finally have enough talent to regain respectability - even making a playoff run. From Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore to the back of a surprisingly deep defense, the 49ers believe they'll raise their game and rejoin the serious competition in the NFC West.
``The new guys that we've added have created a much higher level of competition,'' Nolan said. ``Our guys are going into this season expecting to win. In our previous two years here, we hoped to win and we prepared to win. Now we have to believe we're going to get this team to the next step, which is to play well enough to challenge for a winning record and the playoffs.''
The 49ers went 7-9 last season, with highs including Gore's franchise-record 1,695 yards rushing and two wins over defending conference champion Seattle. The miserable lows were just as telling, from their NFL-worst 412 points allowed to their December home losses to Green Bay and Arizona.
Yet simply achieving mediocrity was always a step in the plan for Nolan, who knew he was nearly starting from scratch in early 2005 after years of mismanagement under former general manager Terry Donahue.
Nolan's decisions with personnel chief Scot McCloughan have been mostly solid. They made their most dramatic moves last March, signing Clements and Lewis to big-money free agent contracts to solidify a secondary that was barely competent when they arrived.
Clements, who got an eight-year, $80 million deal to leave Buffalo, wasn't scared off by the 49ers' losing ways when he decided to change coasts.
``I want to be here when we turn it around and get this franchise back to the place it's supposed to be,'' said Clements, who quickly assumed a leadership role on defense. ``I wanted to be part of the building process. The 49ers are one of the great organizations in this league, and it's time to get us back there.''
Yet with so much change, there's still an unsettled mood around the 49ers. Nolan had to replace all three top assistants in the offseason after firing defensive coordinator Billy Davis and losing offensive coordinator Norv Turner to the Chargers.
Smith and his offensive teammates say little has changed schematically with the promotion of quarterbacks coach Jim Hostler. But Nolan and new defensive coordinator Greg Manusky have installed a true 3-4 defense, even though it's built around a defensive line that hasn't yet played together.
New nose tackle Aubrayo Franklin still hasn't suited up for San Francisco after a training camp injury, and 14th-year defensive end Bryant Young got his first preseason action Thursday at San Diego after missing most of camp with a sore back.
``There are a lot of new things going on, but it's all still a progression from where Coach Nolan started with us two years ago,'' Young said. ``I could tell in the offseason that this team is moving in the right direction. Coach Nolan really changed the culture around here.''
Former Seahawks star Jackson, tight end Davis and a invigorated bunch of receivers should make life easier for Smith, who struggled with one of the NFL's worst groups of pass-catchers in his first two years.
And Gore should be ready for the opener against Arizona after missing the preseason with a broken hand. The Pro Bowl running back's eagerness to get back into practice was gratifying to Nolan, who took a chance on the oft-injured runner in the third round of his first draft.
Nolan knows the third season of any NFL project is usually evaluation time, so both the 49ers and Smith are up for their first serious grades in his tenure. Ever since he agreed to coach the team his father led for eight seasons, Nolan has kept his players focused on winning the division title and building from that benchmark.
``That's going to be our goal again this year,'' Nolan said. ``As long as I'm here, we'll build off the way we play in our division. Everything we've done in these first two years, everything we hope to do in the future, won't mean much unless we win that division.''

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