INDIANAPOLIS - San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh had a message today for the gaggle of media surrounding him at the scouting combine and the 31 other teams tuning in from afar.
"We love our quarterbacks," the 49ers coach said.
Harbaugh said he loved the group so much, in fact, that he sees no reason why the 49ers couldn't keep the gang together in 2013.
Translation: If you're a quarterback-needy team that's eying Alex Smith, you're going to have to make a trade offer.
Trading Smith has long been considered a possibility, but no 49ers official had used the word until Harbaugh did so today. He said the most likely scenarios were that the 49ers would trade Smith, who is due $8.5 million on April 1, or keep him as an expensive backup to Colin Kaepernick.
The only action they are "unlikely" to take is what Smith and his representatives want most - release him so he can hit the open market when free agency begins March 12. That's also the first chance for the 49ers to trade Smith.
"Alex wants to be a starter," Harbaugh said. "He's at the height of his career. Is there a possibility there'd be a trade? Yes. Those are the two things that are the most likely as possibilities."
Smith is in a unique position.
He had the best statistical season of his career in 2012 but still lost his job to Kaepernick. Smith was completing 70 percent of his passes - the best in the NFL - and had a 104.1 quarterback rating when he suffered a concussion Nov. 11 and missed the following game.
Kaepernick played so well in Smith's absence that Harbaugh stuck with the second-year quarterback for the rest of the season, a decision that was vindicated when Kaepernick led the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
As he's been doing for the past two years, Harbaugh heaped praise on Smith.
"Alex is an excellent football player," Harbaugh said. "Alex is playing the best football of his career the last two years. We think we have the best quarterback situation in the National Football League. (I) feel strongly about that."
General manager Trent Baalke said Thursday that he recently had dinner with Smith and his wife, Elizabeth, and Harbaugh said today he's also been in contact with Smith.
Harbaugh said Smith hasn't indicated a preference in possible trade partners or mapped out a plan.
"We've talked. I wouldn't categorize it as 'map out' or anything," he said. "In our conversation, he wants to play. And you can totally understand it."
Harbaugh said keeping Smith wouldn't push the 49ers against the salary cap for 2013, which is expected to be about $121 million.
He said the 49ers could afford Smith and still be able to use the franchise tag, which if used most likely would go to safety Dashon Goldson at $7.45 million. The 49ers and Goldson's agent are discussing a long-term contract.
"You know some things I don't know," Harbaugh said of possible salary-cap perils. "I don't know why we couldn't use the franchise tag."
Et cetera - Harbaugh said he doesn't think wide receiver Mario Manningham will be ready for the start of training camp in late July. The 49ers receiver suffered an ACL tear on Dec. 23.
Asked if David Akers would have a chance to compete for the kicking job in the upcoming season, Harbaugh said, "Yeah, it's a possibility."
Akers missed more field-goal attempts than any other kicker this past season and is due to earn more than $3 million in 2013.
Harbaugh said he hoped the 49ers would agree to a long-term deal with tight end Delanie Walker, who can become a free agent March 12.
Harbaugh referred to Walker as the team's "Swiss army knife."
"Yes, by all means," Harbaugh said of a long-term deal. "Yes, I would be in favor of that."