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From 1982 to 2003, the 49ers? offense was consistently outstanding.

The 49ers ranked in the top five offensively in the NFL 18 times during that 22-season stretch, and just once finished out of the top 10.

Boy, have times ever changed.

In the past five years, the 49ers? best offensive ranking is No. 23, which was accomplished last season under coordinator Mike Martz. And all that got Martz was a prompt dismissal two days after the season finale when coach Mike Singletary wanted to jettison Martz and his pass-happy approach.

So it only goes to figure that most of the 49ers? biggest question marks this season are on offense. Here are the 10 most compelling questions surrounding the 49ers as they prepare to open training camp this week:

1. Who will emerge as the starting quarterback?

The onus is on Alex Smith, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft, to win the job from steady Shaun Hill. Smith ended the past two seasons on injured reserve with shoulder injuries, and Hill has performed well when given an opportunity.

Smith is healthy, and he threw the ball well during the 49ers? offseason program. Hill also looked good. There is still the belief within the organization that Smith has more physical skills and can take the 49ers further if he gets his act together. But Hill?s consistent play late last season was a big reason the 49ers finished strong and Singletary was hired as head coach.

Hill enters camp with the slight edge. Smith must clearly outplay Hill in the exhibition season to win the job.

2. Why didn?t the 49ers acquire a big-name pass rusher?

The 49ers are confident outside linebacker Manny Lawson will provide a significant upgrade over Roderick Green and Tully Banta-Cain. Although the 49ers selected Lawson in the first round of the 2006 draft because of the pass-rush skills he demonstrated at North Carolina State, he has never been used in that capacity in the NFL.

The 49ers did not sign a pass rusher in free agency, nor did they draft anybody to hound the quarterback. Lawson will be counted upon to rush from the left side, while Parys Haralson, who led the 49ers with eight sacks last season, pursues the blind side of the quarterback.

3. How does Michael Crabtree fit in?

Crabtree, whom the 49ers chose with the No. 10 overall pick, will have to earn his playing time with a group of wideouts that includes Isaac Bruce, Josh Morgan, Brandon Jones, Arnaz Battle, Jason Hill and Dominique Zeigler.

Crabtree did not practice in the offseason as he rehabilitated a stress fracture in his foot, so he is already far behind his competition. He is an immensely talented player, but the transition will not be easy.

He has yet to sign his rookie contract, and there is some talk that Crabtree might be difficult to sign. Crabtree certainly can?t afford to lose practice time, as he attempts to make the adjustment from Texas Tech?s spread offense.

4. Who is going to replace veteran cornerback Walt Harris?

Harris is lost for the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn knee ligament last month. The competition for the starting job at left cornerback is expected to be waged between veteran Dre? Bly and third-year player Tarell Brown. Bly has 40 career interceptions in 10 seasons. He signed a one-year contract. Brown has a chance to win the job and hold it for a long time.

5. What is coordinator Jimmy Raye?s plan for the offense?

Running back Frank Gore, who enters the season with a franchise-record three consecutive 1,000-yard rushing seasons, will continue to be the central figure in the team?s offense. Raye, 63, wants the 49ers to be a physical team that can wear down the opposition with a strong running game. The 49ers want to run the ball ? rookie Glen Coffee will see action as Gore?s backup ? and use the play-action pass as a staple of their scheme.

6. Why was Dashon Goldson promoted to the starting lineup?

In 48 games as the 49ers? starter at free safety, veteran Mark Roman had just one interception. The 49ers want to inject playmaking ability into the secondary with Goldson, who has looked impressive on the practice field but did not generate a turnover in an NFL regular-season game in his first two seasons.

7. Will Vernon Davis be a pass-catching threat?

Yes. Davis caught 52 passes in his second NFL season, and was showing a lot of promise. But last year he was the intended target on just 49 passes, as Martz regularly ordered him to block in passing situations. Raye wants to get the ball into Davis? hands on short and intermediate passes, in hopes he can use his speed after the catch.

8. Can the defense carry the load?

After Mike Nolan was fired as head coach at mid-season, defensive coordinator Greg Manusky simplified the scheme. Gone was Nolan?s hybrid 3-4/4-3 defense. Manusky went primarily with a 3-4 alignment. The 49ers? defensive ranking steadily improved to No.13 in the league behind linebacker Patrick Willis and defensive end Justin Smith. The offseason was spent focusing on sacks and turnovers. If the 49ers can improve in those areas, this can easily be a top-10 defense.

9. Is there any reason to believe the offensive line will be better?

The 49ers have surrendered 55 sacks in back-to-back seasons. Certainly, not all of the blame falls on the shoulders of the big guys up front. The 49ers have four positions set on the offensive line. Their weak spot from a year ago was right tackle. The 49ers signed Marvel Smith, a former Pro Bowl left tackle with the Pittsburgh Steelers, to compete against Adam Snyder for the starting job on the right side. If Smith remains healthy after two injury-shortened seasons, he could solidify the line.

10. Is Singletary a difference-maker?

He is charismatic. He has credibility. He is focused and driven. And he knows how to communicate and relate to his players. Do any of those attributes guarantee success as an NFL head coach? No.

Singletary has command of the team. But he?ll have to prove he can push the right buttons during the course of the season to get the most out of his players. And it all starts with supplying the correct answer to Question No. 1.

For more on the 49ers, go to Instant 49ers at blog.pressdemocrat.com/49ers. You can reach Staff Writer Matt Maiocco via email at matt.maiocco@pressdemocrat.com

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