An in-depth preview of Sunday's matchup between the Cardinals and NFC West leading 49ers.
Notebook: Talks begin on new deal for Smith
Smith, the No. 1 overall selection of the 2005 NFL draft, obviously has resurrected his career this season and under the tutelage of rookie 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh is performing with considerably more confidence.
What Smith and his people have to weigh before making a decision:
--- His connection to Harbaugh.
--- His loyalty to an organization that believed in him enough to give Smith several different opportunities to establish himself as the starter despite a spotty track record his first six season.
--- How the 49ers' proposal, if made, might stack up against his price tag on the open market and in a league where there is a dearth of veteran quarterbacks available.
Smith is playing this season on a one-year deal worth $4 million, and the early indications are that San Francisco might consider at least a two-year extension.
Smith is enjoying the best season of his career this year and has played a major role in the team's 10-2 record, which has clinched San Francisco's first NFC West title and playoff berth since 2002. Smith has ranked among the NFL's top 10 quarterbacks most of the season and currently ranks eighth in the league with a passer rating of 94.9.
HARBAUGH SAID FRIDAY THAT HE IS "very excited about it" that the 49ers have signed young offensive tackle Alex Boone to a contract extension through the 2015 season.
"He's a good, young football player who has done everything we've asked," Harbaugh said of Boone, who joined the team as an undrafted free agent in 2009. "A very talented football player. A team guy all the way. And we wanted him back. He wanted to be back, and we were able to get a contract done."
Boone is the first player the 49ers have publicly announced they've signed to a new contract since the season began in September.
The 24-year-old backup tackle has played on special teams and as an extra blocker on short-yardage situations throughout the season. He has taken over the No. 3 tackle role that belonged to veteran Barry Sims last season.
According to NFL Network, the 6-foot-8, 30-pound Boone received a $1.7 million signing bonus. He will make $450,000 in 2012, $540,000 in 2013, $950,000 in 2014 and $1.2 million in 2015. Boone is making $450,000 this season.
"We are very pleased with the progress that Alex has made since joining the team in 2009," Niners general manager Trent Baalke said. "He really is a great example of what hard work, dedication and focus can do to further a young player's career. The 49ers are very happy for Alex and look forward to him capitalizing on this opportunity."
ESPN REPORTED THIS WEEK THAT PRO BOWL linebacker Patrick Willis has a grade 2 sprain of his right hamstring. Willis did not practice with the team for the third consecutive day Friday and is listed as questionable to play Sunday against the Arizona Cardinals.
There are four categories of hamstring strains. The first, and most mild, is a stretching of the muscle fiber. The second is a slight fraying of the muscle and evidence of swelling and fluid. The third is a more extensive tear and the last is a complete or near complete rupture where the muscle detaches from the bone.
Oakland orthopedic surgeon David Chang was asked about the recovery time on a grade 2 sprain.
"To provide a wide window, three to six weeks," he said.
Chang repaired the shattered leg of then-Jets running back Leon Washington when he sustained the break against the Oakland Raiders in 2009. Washington has since resumed a successful career as a running back and return specialist in Seattle.
Chang also characterized hamstring injuries as "frustrating" because the opportunity for re-injury is so high.
Scar tissue that forms around the muscle isn't as flexible as normal tissue and thus has a tendency to tear again. That's what happened to cornerback Shawntae Spencer's groin muscle strain in training camp. Spencer tried to come back too soon, aggravated the injury and basically missed all of training camp.
Not only has Spencer failed to regain his starting job, he's been inactive for several games this year.
That obviously won't be the case with Willis, despite replacement Larry Grant's six tackles, two for lost yardage, and a sack against the Rams last week.
Nevertheless, a three-week recuperation would mean Willis could return for the season finale in Seattle. Six weeks would mean Willis wouldn't be ready until the Super Bowl.
While Harbaugh wouldn't discuss details of Willis' MRI scan, he wouldn't rule Willis out for Sunday's game. Harbaugh is a believer in Willis' powers of quick recovery.
"I'm optimistic, yes. Is he a quick healer? Absolutely. He's a stud," Harbaugh said.
HARBAUGH AND HIS PLAYERS WILL NOT CRUISE for the rest of the season even though the 49ers are one of just two teams that have clinched playoff berths.
"Winning the division (is) much like a diploma or certificate that you might receive in school that has your name on it, and what you did, and put that in a little frame, put it up on the wall and feel good about that accomplishment," Harbaugh said. "Then move forward to the next goal."
That attitude led to a muted feeling in the locker room after last week's game, even though the 49ers won their division title in nine seasons.
"We can't stop here," safety Dashon Goldson said.
The next goal is playoff position. The 49ers want to cling to the No. 2 playoff seeding that they currently hold, which would assure them a first-round bye and then a home playoff game.
That's why the team won't be resting players or allowing players such as Willis extra time to return from injuries. Willis.
"We're not in a position to rest," Harbaugh said.
WIDE RECEIVER BRAYLON EDWARDS' ONE-WEEK HIATUS from his knee and shoulder injuries is over. Edwards said he's now ready for football after sitting out last week to rest his injuries.
It might have something to do with the breakout game experienced by Kyle Williams, who caught two passes for 66 yards and a touchdown and had one carry for 25 yards last week against the Rams.
Edwards also wants to be a part of the team's playoff spoils.
"I don't want to watch any more clinching without me," he said.
THERE HAS BEEN PLENTY OF ATTENTION in San Francisco paid to the 49ers' two standout players named "Smith," quarterback Alex and defensive end Justin, but a third guy with the same common surname probably deserves a bow as well.
The 49ers caught some flak and generated a dose of skepticism seven months ago when they chose Missouri defensive end/linebacker Aldon Smith with the seventh pick in the first round of the draft. Through 12 games, and with the NFL's second-best record, the choice now is looking pretty good.
Despite not starting a single game, Smith has 9½ sacks and has provided the 49ers with a real presence off the edge of their 3-4 defensive front.
"He's been what we drafted him to be," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "He's still got some things to learn in terms of the (linebacker) position, but he can definitely rush the quarterback."
There seems to be little doubt that another linebacker, Von Miller of Denver, will be the NFL's defensive rookie of the year. And deservedly so. Miller leads all rookies with 10.5 sacks.
But it's notable that Smith, in considerably less playing time, has only one fewer sack than Miller.
"There are just some guys who are born (pass) rushers, and he is," said Justin Smith.
THE 49ERS ARE A BIG STEP CLOSER to moving from San Francisco to a new stadium about 45 miles south in Santa Clara.
The team and City of Santa Clara recently announced that they have secured long-awaited funding for the project. Goldman Sachs, Bank of America-Merrill Lynch and U.S. Bank have agreed to an $850 million loan with the city's stadium authority and the 49ers.
The money will cover the bulk of the estimated $1 billion project. Funding from the National Football League, a hotel tax and city redevelopment funds is expected to make up the difference.
Officials say the loans were the last major piece of the project. The goal is to open the new stadium in 2015.
San Francisco mayor Ed Lee was scheduled to meet with the 49ers this week in a last-ditch attempt to keep the team in the city of its origin, but Lee believes the franchise's move to a new stadium in Silicon Valley is all but assured.
Lee said only intervention by the NFL could halt the Niners' planned move after the city of Santa Clara and the team announced they had secured the funding for the project.
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