San Francisco 49ers

49ers notes: It’s a guessing game as to who starts at free safety

Buckner is stronger, wiser and among 49ers to watch in season opener

Matt Barrows previews the Week 1 game at Levi's Stadium on Sunday, September 10, with insight on likely highlights.
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Matt Barrows previews the Week 1 game at Levi's Stadium on Sunday, September 10, with insight on likely highlights.

The 49ers list Jimmie Ward as doubtful for Sunday’s opener against the Carolina Panthers, meaning one of three players will start at the critical free-safety spot in San Francisco’s defense.

Those three: Third-year player Jaquiski Tartt, who perhaps is best suited to play strong safety, and a pair of rookies, seventh-round pick Adrian Colbert and undrafted Lorenzo Jerome.

Kyle Shanahan said one of those three emerged as the leader this week, but he wanted to keep everyone, including the Panthers, guessing up until Sunday afternoon.

“It’s been good competition,” he said. “I have a pretty good idea who’s leading it. But I won’t know for sure until (Sunday).”

Ward, who is recovering from a hamstring injury suffered in July, has been a limited participant in practice throughout the week. On Wednesday and Thursday, he worked by himself with defensive backs coach Jeff Hafley observing while his teammates went through their warm-up drills. On Friday, however, he went through his most extensive practice of the week.

“He’s done a little more each day and he’s getting healthier each day,” Shanahan said. “That’s why I think he has a chance to go this week.”

Ward’s “doubtful” designation, however, means he’s unlikely to play. In fact, Ward has not gone through a full practice since the spring.

Tartt is the most experienced of the contenders having started six games at free safety last year. He also was the team’s starting free safety in the third preseason game, which was the truest test run for the regular season.

Jerome has lined up at the position the most since the spring and he started the team’s first two preseason games. Colbert started the fourth preseason game and seems the least likely of three to start against the Panthers.

Free safety is vital to the 49ers’ defense this year because the strong safety, Eric Reid, often plays close to the line of scrimmage. That leaves the free safety to patrol the middle and deep portion of the field and to clean up any mistakes by the other 10 defenders.

Shifting captains – Shanahan said he would reveal the team captains for the Panthers game during the 49ers’ Saturday night team meeting. He said he’d likely have a different trio of captains – offense, defense and special teams – for the first half of the season.

“I think it adds a little excitement (for) the guys when you name new guys the day before the game,” he said. “Each reason is different – they kind of have a little message with it.”

After perhaps the first eight games, Shanahan said he likely would name permanent captains.

“I want guys to earn it,” he said.

Et cetera – The 49ers listed rookie tight end George Kittle (hamstring) and defensive end Aaron Lynch (back) as questionable for Sunday’s game. Kittle, who is listed as the team’s starting tight end, appeared to be moving well in practice late in the week.

▪ According to ESPN, Matt Barkley was one of three quarterbacks who worked out for the New England Patriots on Friday. Barkley began the offseason as the 49ers’ No. 2 quarterback, but he was surpassed by rookie C.J. Beathard and released this month.

▪ The 49ers announced that Levi’s Stadium this year will be equipped with an ampm convenience store located in the northwest portion of the stadium.

Matt Barrows: @mattbarrows, read more about the team at sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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