When the 49ers open the regular season Sunday vs. the Carolina Panthers, they’ll likely be without free safety Jimmie Ward.
In the 49ers’ new defensive scheme, Ward was set to be the unit’s deep protection, with the strong safety (Eric Reid) playing closer to the line of scrimmage to better help with run support.
But it appears Ward will be on the sideline because of a hamstring issue.
That will leave either Jaquiski Tartt or undrafted rookie Lorenzo Jerome as the starter against Cam Newton and the Panthers.
San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters Wednesday that coaches will pick between Tartt and Jerome after practices Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
“Both those guys will be competing,” Shanahan said. “They’ve got three days to do it. Depends how we use them, what packages. I’ll probably have a better answer for you on Sunday.”
Jerome, who is making the huge leap from playing for little St. Francis University to the NFL, was impressive throughout training camp and the exhibition season. He’s a ballhawk and playmaker who seems to always be around the football. No matter who starts at free safety, Jerome told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group that the front seven of the defense will need to play well to help the secondary Sunday, because Newton is a terrific quarterback.
“The D-line has to get a lot of pressure because we have to make him feel uncomfortable,” Jerome said. “If he’s uncomfortable, he’s not as great as he’s supposed to be. When he gets comfortable, he can be a dangerous quarterback.”
Ward has been fighting through his sore hamstring for several weeks. Shanahan said Ward won’t be back on the field until “he can string together a few good days in a row.”
Ward has been excited about playing free safety, a position for which he believes he is best suited. He played the position in college, but was at cornerback for the 49ers in 2016.
“It’s my natural position,” he said recently. But for now, at least, the position will belong to either Tartt or Jerome.
Sunday’s 49ers-Panthers game at Levi’s Stadium is set to kick off at 1:25 p.m.