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With lockout, 49ers, new coach Jim Harbaugh stuck in neutral

Along with their draft board and telephone, the 49ers could include handcuffs and blindfolds in their draft room this week. Because no team has felt the constraints of the NFL lockout more than the 49ers.

New coach Jim Harbaugh has little hands-on knowledge of his existing team and had limited opportunity to interact with his players before the lockout. After Monday's ruling lifting the lockout no one can be sure what will happen next. But if the ruling is successfully appealed by league owners and the NFL stays shuttered, Harbaugh will continue to be restricted.

Unlike some of the other new coaches in the league, Harbaugh inherits a team with zero answers at quarterback. And he's not likely to find a definitive answer in this week's NFL draft.

How bad is it for the 49ers? So bad that they're willing to give Alex Smith a seventh year to try to prove he can be an effective starting quarterback.

The rationale?

"He (Smith) understands the building," general manager Trent Baalke said, adding that "there's a lot of comfort in having somebody, especially when we're in the situation we're in, where there are so many unknowns."

What a ringing endorsement. The former No. 1 draft pick knows who sits in what office and how to operate the coffee machine.

The 49ers are in a tough spot. Harbaugh was hired last January because of his projected ability -- based on his success at Stanford -- to develop a quarterback and build an offense. But the only quarterback under contract is the utterly ineffective David Carr.

And this week's draft offers no sure things at quarterback. It seems unlikely that the 49ers would use their No. 7 pick on a quarterback: they don't seem sold that any prospect would be worth that high a selection. But by the time they select again -- in the second round at No. 45 -- many of the intriguing prospects, players like Washington's Jake Locker and TCU's Andy Dalton, may be gone.

Baalke indicated that the team will almost certainly come out of the draft with at least one quarterback, but where and when that player is selected remains to be seen.

The 49ers' draft isn't, of course, going to only be about a quarterback. The team has huge holes to fill: their 6-10 record last season wasn't only the result of an ineffective quarterback and a lousy head coach.

But the 49ers have always been a quarterback-centric team, back to the days of Frankie Albert and Y.A. Tittle. These days the furor surrounding the position is greater than ever, after six fruitless years of trying to force Smith into the role of starter.

Harbaugh says, in evaluating quarterbacks you can tell, "they either have it or they don't." But apparently he isn't convinced that Smith has already proved --time and again -- that he doesn't have it.

Harbaugh has said glowing things about Smith ever since he took the helm of the 49ers. He is looking at Smith with fresh eyes and said he hopes that Smith can get the new start he's seeking in San Francisco.

"They hit it off in their discussions," Baalke said in a pre-draft news conference. "Coach is very comfortable with him. I'm very comfortable with him. ... The olive branch has been extended."

Nobody asked if Smith fumbled the olive branch.

Smith, too, is hamstrung by the lockout. Without free agency, he's been unable to explore his opportunities for a fresh start somewhere else. All he knows right now is that he would have an opportunity to play with a team where the term "Alex-cuses" has made it's way into the building (too many different offensive coordinators, too many injuries). He will have the chance to return to a team where, even if he completes 80 percent of his passes, he's guaranteed to be booed the other 20 percent of the time.

The lockout has Smith and the entire 49ers organization stuck in neutral, spinning in the muck of the last few years.

Smith may know the 49ers building, which means he knows where the exits are. And he'd probably be smart to use one of them, whenever he officially can.

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