The San Francisco 49ers officially listed safety Jimmie Ward as doubtful for their regular season opener against the Carolina Panthers. He has been limited in practice with a hamstring injury, and the nature of such injuries means the safest course of action is to sit him in Week 1.
That means the 49ers will have to rely on a backup to start at free safety, and they have no clear No. 2 player there. That is to say, they have two players they feel comfortable with, but aren’t sure — or aren’t telling — which one will start: Jaquiski Tartt or Lorenzo Jerome.
There’s a case to be made for starting both players, though it’s a complicated issue, really. The biggest thing to note is the fact that the 49ers switched up their defense and changed Tartt’s role so much that his experience over Jerome, a rookie, doesn’t create nearly as big a gap as one might think.
Jerome started the team’s first two preseason games at free safety. Tartt started the third. Adrian Colbert started the fourth.
Jerome, from the beginning, has been practicing to play free safety. Tartt was more of a strong safety last year, and his style is more akin to that of Eric Reid, the starter at strong safety, than a free safety. But he does have the experience edge over Jerome. Tartt is probably the best defender not starting in the base defense, and the 49ers already want to find creative ways to get him onto the field.
The same can’t be said for Jerome, who plays a lot like Ward, which is his biggest positive. Jerome is aggressive, but plays with more finesse than strength. He’s over-committed here and there in the preseason, but ultimately has looked fine at the position. If the 49ers want the defense to resemble what it’s supposed to look like when Ward is in the lineup, then starting Jerome makes sense.
San Francisco plans on working Tartt into the lineup wherever they can. They want him to occasionally come in on nickel packages to be a physical force. He could even play some linebacker. If Jerome started Sunday’s game against the Panthers, Tartt would likely still see plenty of snaps.
Then again, if he’s that important, then he should simply be the starter anyway. He looked very good last season when Antoine Bethea went down, and the thought of the 49ers going forward this offseason without him planned for the startling lineup was distressing to many, myself included.
Still, as a huge Tartt fan, I think it would be worth it to start Jerome and try to work Tartt in the lineup in the same ways the team already planned when Ward was healthy. Either way, I don’t think the 49ers are in particularly bad shape at the position.