SANTA CLARA -- Patrick Willis' retirement last month not only was a surprise to the 49ers, it put things in perspective for at least two of his former teammates.
Tight end Vernon Davis, for example, missed last season's offseason program in the hope of leveraging a new contract. This year he's on hand starting in Week 1. Why is he here, he was asked?
"I'm here this year because I want to be better," Davis said. "I want to win. I want to develop chemistry with my teammates and get to know guys -- there are a lot of news guys here. And you just never know when this game is over for you. Patrick Willis put things in perspective for a lot of guys around here with him retiring. That just gave me some insight and it put a good taste in my mouth as far as my approach towards the game and just giving this game all I can give it and taking it one day at a time and give it my best."
Safety Antoine Bethea agreed.
"We were definitely surprised," Bethea, the team's 2014 MVP, said. "Like Vernon said, it put everything in perspective. This game is short-lived, and you've got to put everything into it while you're playing this game. Two great players -- Chris Borland came on strong for us at the end of the year -- (are gone) but we've got to keep it rolling."
Bethea said he expected players to step into the roles of 49ers who have left this offseason, a group that also includes running back Frank Gore and the team's two starting cornerbacks from 2014, Chris Culliver and Perrish Cox.
One of the players coming back is NaVorro Bowman, who is returning from an ACL injury suffered in January 2014. Jim Tomsula said he expected Bowman to be on hand for the 49ers' first minicamp, which runs April 28-30. "When we get on the field, Bow's going on the field," he said.
Smith still deciding -- Tomsula said he still hasn't heard from Justin Smith about whether the veteran defensive lineman will return for a 15th season, and he said he'll continue to give Smith plenty of leeway to make his decision.
And if Smith doesn't come back?
“For four years –- you see the d-linemen we’ve brought in –- we’ve been making preparations,” Tomsula said. “This isn’t a 'this year' thing for us. We’ve been making preparations. A guy gets to 12 years in the NationalFootball League and he’s about a 92-percent rep count playing defensive line, you better start making preparations. That started a while ago.”
Even without Smith and Ray McDonald, who signed with the Bears last month, the 49ers have a full house along the defensive line. The group includes Glenn Dorsey, Ian Williams, Tank Carradine, Quinton Dial, Tony Jerod-Eddie, Kaleb Ramsey and Lawrence Okoye.
The 49ers also could add a defensive lineman in a draft deep with them. They are meeting with two -- Oregon's Arik Armstead and Florida State's Eddie Goldman -- next week.
Kaepernick on Hayne -- Kaepernick worked out with three players last month at EXOS training facility in Phoenix -- receivers Bruce Ellington and Quinton Patton as well as newcomer Jarryd Hayne, a star player in Australia's Rugby League who will try to earn a roster spot with the 49ers this year.
"Phenomenal athlete. Just a natural," Kaepernick said of Hayne. "Since the day I met him, since every workout he's been at, he's going to give you everything he has. And it doesn't seem like there's going to be much of a learning curve for him."
The 49ers likely will ease Hayne into the NFL on special teams, perhaps as a punt returner. But he's listed as a running back on the roster.
Kaepernick's first impression?
"This is going to be a football player," he said. "He does a lot of things very well and it's going to be our job to be able to utilize him and put him in position to allow him to make plays and use that athleticism.”
Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.