SANTA CLARA Last year, Alex Smith was elite. This year, he's an expert.
Both assessments come courtesy of coach Jim Harbaugh, who on Thursday noted his quarterback's excellent practices this week and said Smith has mastered the 49ers' playbook.
"He already has great ideas. He's already creative, already very knowledgeable on how to use everything in the system," Harbaugh said. "I think after a year, you really know it. But it takes about two years to become a real expert at it in the quarterback position. But he's cut that in half."
The comment touches on the point Smith's college coach, Urban Meyer, made after Smith was drafted No. 1 overall in 2005. Meyer predicted Smith would be "nonfunctional" until he completely learned the system but would flourish thereafter.
"He is so careful with the ball," Meyer said at the time. "That's because, unless he knows exactly what's going on, he won't throw it. He won't just try to guess and take a shot. He has to know. That is why, early in his career, and early in our career with him that first spring, he was not a very effective passer, because he really didn't understand. Once he understood it, there was no one better."
Until this season, Smith has had a different offensive coordinator every year he's been in the league. He began 2010 with the same coordinator from the previous season, Jimmy Raye, but Raye was fired after the third week.
Smith, meanwhile, sloughed off Harbaugh's praise, saying only that his expertise "is better than it was a year ago. I feel like I've progressed. When you play quarterback, I feel like you're always working to get better and working to learn. It's never-ending."
Asked, however, if he knows this offense better than any previous NFL offense, he was more absolute.
"Yeah, for sure. No question," he said.
Byham released The 49ers waived injured tight end Nate Byham, a blocking specialist who missed the 2011 season because of a torn knee ligament. Byham was attempting to return from the injury, but his knee was not responding during training camp.
If Byham passes through waivers today, the 49ers can place him on injured reserve. Konrad Reuland is the most likely player to step into the role as No. 3 tight end.
However, the 49ers also could go into the season with two true tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker and have Demarcus Dobbs play the position when needed. Dobbs has been playing both defensive end and tight end in training camp.
Aldon walks Outside linebacker Aldon Smith walked out of the locker room to observe practice, and he didn't have a cane or a crutch. In fact, Smith didn't have a limp, a sign that his hip pointer is healing nicely. Smith could hardly walk hours after the injury occurred last week.
Both he and fellow starter Ahmad Brooks appear unlikely to play Saturday in Houston. Brooks has missed every practice since Sunday. In addition, rookie Cam Johnson has not been on hand this week.
Parys Haralson and Eric Bakhtiari likely will start at outside linebacker, and Kourtnei Brown and Kenny Rowe will back them up.