SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The 49ers are still deciding who’s going to play free safety in the season opener against the Panthers.
Expected starter Jimmie Ward’s status remains up in the air while he’s been a limited participant in practice this week after suffering a hamstring injury July 27 that prevented him from playing in the preseason.
If Ward can’t go Sunday, San Francisco will turn to undrafted rookie Lorenzo Jerome or third-year veteran Jaquiski Tartt, who mostly played strong safety during his first two seasons. Both received time working in Ward’s spot throughout training camp and the exhibition slate.
“They’re both really prepared,” first-time defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said Thursday. “With our defense, just because we are so in tuned to making sure players are fresh, everyone’s got to know more than one position anyway. Throughout OTAs and training camp they’ve been well prepared by their position coaches.”
Jerome is one of five undrafted free agents to crack the 49ers’ 53-man roster. He played collegiately at little-known Saint Francis (Pennsylvania) where he made his name as a ball-hawking defensive back. He had 18 interceptions and 47 pass breakups over his four seasons.
It was clear his instincts were NFL-caliber, but his numbers at the scouting combine weren’t up to par. He ran a 4.7 in the 40, making him one of the slowest prospects at the position.
The 49ers took their chances by adding Jerome to their 90-man roster hours after the NFL draft. The team didn’t have an established backup free safety for its single-high scheme, so Jerome saw an opportunity.
Jerome started the first two preseason games and became increasingly comfortable. But he was overly aggressive at times, which he’ll have to dial back.
“I know that this league is very fast and very quick,” Jerome said. “So I have to be very slow with my feet and let the play develop before I just run up there and try to make the aggressive play.”
Saleh said the rookie is “starting to see more.”
“The more they see, the more calculated they can be back there. . They get to a point where they just recognize. They’ve got great play recognition,” Saleh said. “They see the big picture and they can react much faster. That’s where he’s getting better.”
Tartt has the edge on Jerome in experience. He appeared in 30 games and made 14 starts over his first two seasons.
But at 221 pounds, he’s a natural strong safety. His bigger build has led to him being used as an extra linebacker in long-yardage situations where he could cover running backs and tight ends. He may be asked to play both deep safety and close to the line of scrimmage Sunday against Cam Newton and the Panthers.
“It’s hard. You’re asking a lot of a player,” Saleh said. “You’re asking them to know two different spots. But, if there’s anyone who can do it it’s him. He is a smart football player and he does everything we’ve asked.”