INDIANAPOLIS When the new NFL year begins next month, the 49ers' priority will be to preserve what they built in 2011.
It won't be easy.
Fourteen players are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents, including six who were starters last season.
The 49ers can negotiate exclusively with those players until free agency begins March 13, and contract talks between the team's chief negotiator, Paraag Marathe, and the players' agents began this week in Indianapolis.
General manager Trent Baalke, who is in charge of determining the value for players, talked Thursday about how special the 49ers were as a group last season and the need to maintain that mix in the coming year.
But he also said the reality of the NFL is that teams change from year to year.
"All I can say is we want to keep our group together," Baalke said. "And we're going to do whatever we can from a financial standpoint to do that, realizing that it is a business and the locker room is going to change at some point."
One free agent unlikely to leave is quarterback Alex Smith.
While coach Jim Harbaugh has been effusive in his praise of Smith for more than a year "Alex is our guy. That's well-documented," Harbaugh said Thursday Baalke has been more reserved in his assessment.
Last year at the scouting combine, the 49ers were shopping for quarterbacks in both free agency and the draft, and the team tried to land veteran free agent Matt Hasselbeck.
This year, they appear set at the position.
Baalke said the 49ers constantly try to upgrade every position, including quarterback. But he admitted the position is lower on the priority list this year.
"Is it a focus of need right now?" Baalke said. "No, we're very comfortable with the younger guys (Colin Kaepernick and Scott Tolzien). And it remains to be seen what we're going to be able to get done with Alex, but (we) feel very comfortable there, as well. It's not something that Jim or I or anyone else in the organization are real stressed out about."
Harbaugh, however, said he won't rest until Smith signs a new deal.
"As a coach, you worry about a lot of things," Harbaugh said. "And when the quarterback's not signed and is a free agent, that leads to some lost sleep."
The other offensive starters whose contracts run out next month are right guard Adam Snyder and wideout Joshua Morgan, who is ahead of schedule in recovering from a broken leg suffered in October.
On defense, safety Dashon Goldson, cornerback Carlos Rogers and outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks are scheduled to become free agents.
"They are 49ers. They play like 49ers. They play their hearts out," Harbaugh said. "And you want those guys on your side. I know I value them a lot. We all do. We value them a lot."
"The one thing that I can't overstate enough is the locker room and those guys in it," Baalke said. "That's what gets you to 13-3. It's the coaching staff and the players coming together and believing in one another, and everybody believes in one another. So the more we can keep together, the better we're going to be moving forward."