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49ers

Harbaugh Says Alex Smith ‘Is A 49er,’ Likely Returns

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Quarterback Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

Quarterback Alex Smith of the San Francisco 49ers. (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

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SANTA CLARA (AP) ― Free agent quarterback Alex Smith met for close to 40 minutes with new 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh on Friday, and Harbaugh said Saturday that he is convinced Smith will return to the team and be the front-runner for San Francisco’s starting job.

In fact, the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick out of Utah left team headquarters with a playbook — not a common practice for an unsigned player considering how teams so closely guard their schemes — though these are unique circumstances with the NFL in lockout limbo. The 49ers had to be pretty confident in their chances of bringing him back to hand over Harbaugh’s playbook.

“I do (expect him to be here),” Harbaugh said Saturday in a post-draft news conference. “I absolutely think it’s a great fit.”

Harbaugh said, “Alex Smith is a 49er,” and all indications are he will stay put once the lockout is lifted, free agency begins and teams can sign players.

“I think he’s going to come back to the team. There’s a leap of faith there,” Harbaugh added. “There’s no gentleman’s agreement. It’s intuition, a gut feeling.”

Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback himself, said Smith would have the head start in any upcoming QB competition just based on his experience in the league.

Still, there will be a competition once players finally get on the field and get into full speed 11-on-11 drills. David Carr is still on the roster, and San Francisco traded up to draft Nevada quarterback Colin Kaepernick with the 36th overall pick in the second round Friday night.

“Alex is definitely going to have the head start. He has played in the NFL, he’s won games in the NFL,” Harbaugh said. “If I’m a betting man, then I’m betting on Alex Smith. That being said, everybody who takes that field, especially at that position, believes that they’re the guy that’s best for the job and they’re going to go out and prepare that way and compete that way. If they’re going to have any chance to be the starter, that’s the way their mindset has to be, so I’m not going to diminish that or take that desire away from a player or put them in a box or a role that they may rise above.”

Smith passed for 2,370 yards and 14 touchdowns in 11 games and 10 starts last season, but he also threw 10 interceptions and was sacked 25 times. The 49ers finished 6-10 after a surprising 0-5 start and haven’t had a winning season or reached the playoffs since 2002.

Smith took over the starting job midway through 2009 and was entrenched as the starter heading into 2010. After separating his non-throwing left shoulder Oct. 24 at Carolina, former coach Mike Singletary turned to 2006 Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith for the next five games — even after Alex Smith was healthy again. Troy Smith went 3-2 as a starter, then it was Alex Smith’s turn again for two games, including a commanding win over eventual West champion Seattle.

After a flop at San Diego, Singletary turned back to Troy Smith for a must-win game with the Rams on Dec. 26. That 25-17 loss cost the coach his job with one week to go. Jim Tomsula, serving a single-game stint as interim head coach, went with Alex Smith for a win against Arizona in the season finale.

While general manager Trent Baalke said there was no gentleman’s agreement in place with Smith, everybody in the building appeared poised to welcome him back soon.

“We believe in our heart,” Baalke said of signing Smith back.

(© 2011 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)

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