INDIANAPOLIS -- Jim Harbaugh on Friday had a message for the gaggle of media surrounding him at the scouting combine and for the 31 other teams tuning in from afar.
"We love our quarterbacks," the 49ers head coach said. In fact, Harbaugh said he loved the group so much, he saw 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 long has been discussed as a possibility, but no 49ers official had used the word until Harbaugh did so Friday. He said the most likely scenarios were that 49ers would trade Smith, who is due $8.5 million on April 1, or keep him as an expensive backup behind Colin Kaepernick.
The only action they are "unlikely" to take is what Smith and his representatives want most -- release him so that he can hit the open market when free agency begins March 12. That's also the first point the 49ers can 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 Colin 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 last two years, Harbaugh on Friday heaped praise on Smith.
"Alex is an excellent football player," he 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 he's also been in contact. Asked if Smith has indicated a preference in possible trade partners or otherwise mapped out a plan, Harbaugh said, no.
"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."
If the 49ers kept Smith, it would mean that their single-greatest salary-cap figure would go to a backup quarterback. Still, Harbaugh disputed whether that would push the 49ers against the salary-cap limit for 2013, which is expected to be approximately $121 million.
In fact, 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 currently 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."
-- Matt Barrows