SANTA CLARA Donte Whitner on Monday said the best thing for rookie free safety Eric Reid's development is to face a few top-rated quarterbacks and, frankly, to be beaten a couple of times.
"It's going to take a little experience; he's going to have to take some lumps; he's going to have to give up some passes and understand where he's supposed to be," said Whitner, a strong safety and seven-year veteran who is serving as Reid's mentor this summer.
As it happens, San Francisco's opponent in Thursday's exhibition season opener has a long history of teaching NFL safeties memorable albeit, painful lessons. Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is expected to play 10 to 12 snaps with the rest of the Denver starters before exiting the game.
The question is whether Reid will get a chance to face him. As defensive coordinator Vic Fangio promised at the start of training camp, there has been a four-man rotation at free safety among Reid, C.J. Spillman, Trenton Robinson and Craig Dahl. Reid, however, has been working with Whitner and the first-string defense for the past three practices, and Whitner said he likes what he has seen from the team's first-round draft pick.
"He's not making a lot of mistakes," he said. "He's making plays on the football, so we just need to see him in live action."
Like Reid, Whitner was a first-round draft pick, and as such he started from "Day One, Game 1" as a Buffalo Bills rookie in 2006.
The first quarterback he faced was New England's Tom Brady. Whitner said he and the Buffalo defense had the upper hand on Brady and the Patriots, and that Whitner had a late interception for a touchdown that would have sealed a Bills win.
But teammate Nate Clements was flagged for an illegal block on the play, and New England ended up winning by two points.
Reid also would have a notable first opponent if he started in Week 1 Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers. Which is why the rookie said he'd love a chance to warm up against Manning this week.
"That would be awesome," Reid said. "I think that would set the tone for my career, going against one of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League."
Notes Patrick Willis recently had surgery on his fractured right hand, the third time the 49ers inside linebacker has had a procedure on the hand since 2010.
Willis suffered the latest break July 31 when, during a one-on-one pass-rush drill, his hand struck the leg of fullback Bruce Miller.
ESPN, which first noted the surgery, reported that Willis would be back in three weeks. The 49ers will host Green Bay in the regular-season opener two weeks later on Sept. 8.
Even if Willis' hand is not fully recovered by then, recent history indicates he still could play at a high level with a cast on the hand. He has broken a finger or a bone in his right hand four times since he was a junior at Mississippi in 2005. He broke a bone in the hand during his rookie season in 2007 and still led the NFL in tackles that season.
The most serious injury came in December 2010 when he fractured the hand and had pins inserted. He played the following two weeks with a cast on the hand but further damaged it in the penultimate game of the season against St. Louis.
With the 49ers out of playoff contention that year, Willis had a second surgery and sat out the season finale, the first game he had missed in his career to that point.
Michael Wilhoite has filled in for Willis in the past week and likely will be in the "Jack" linebacker spot against Denver. Other inside linebackers include sixth-round pick Nick Moody, Nate Stupar and undrafted rookie Travis Johnson.
Center Jonathan Goodwin was back on the practice field, wearing a blue no-contact jersey, after suffering an undisclosed injury.
Left tackle Joe Staley returned to practice after missing Sunday's session for undisclosed reasons, and defensive end Justin Smith sat out with a finger injury.