Previewing The 49ers Starters: QB Alex Smith

The 2012 NFL season is right around the corner, with the first preseason game being less-than two weeks away now. We're going to take this time to take a look at each of the projected starters of the San Francisco 49ers and give them a quick breakdown, with one player per day. We'll start with the offense, and if we're starting there, we can only begin with one player: quarterback Alex Smith.

Last Season: Jim Harbaugh took flattery to new levels with the windy prose he spouted to the media during the NFL lockout. Smith wasn't even signed at that point, but Harbaugh laid it on thick with the praise and put his trust in Smith early on by giving him a playbook before he was under contract. Maybe this was because Harbaugh actually had faith, or maybe it was because Smith was simply his best option, but that's how it went down.

And it worked out incredibly well. Smith didn't necessarily have a Pro Bowl year, but that's mostly because the quarterbacks in the NFL today are so good, and the bar is set pretty high. He started, getting his umpteenth chance to do so, and had the best year of his career. He controlled the ball and didn't turn it over, which was excellent in lieu of those big numbers. Smith did nothing other than cement his place as the starter.

Big Question: With only a small portion of Harbaugh's playbook exercised in 2011, will Smith "open up" the offense with more comfort and new toys to play with such as Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and LaMichael James? Preventing turnovers will surely be his biggest assignment once again, but many are wondering if he comes out guns blazing in 2012.

Smith's Leash: San Francisco wants that ball control/field position offense to work in much the same way it did a year ago. What happens if Smith comes out of the gate throwing interceptions and generally looking poor? His career thus far has been defined by quarterback battles - and it would be interesting to see if Colin Kaepernick or Josh Johnson got in on the action if San Francisco is losing games. Just some food for thought.

Projection: It's hard to imagine Smith regressing, given just how he's conducted himself recently. He looks the part of a mature quarterback who knows what he's doing, and he's got the intelligence to devour that playbook with a full offseason of learning. Will San Francisco get 10+ wins again with him at the helm? Who knows - but smart money is on his performance continuing to walk that middle ground between safe football and top-flight football.

For more on the San Francisco 49ers, join the discussion over at Niners Nation. You can also check out everything we have to offer at SB Nation's NFL hub.

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