Midway through Monday’s full-padded practice, undrafted 49ers safeties Lorenzo Jerome and Vinnie Sunseri knelt beside each other on the sidelines while San Francisco’s second-string defense took the field.
Up to that point, the pair of rookies had been taking reps with the third — and even fourth — units. But just minutes before the two caught a breather, they were thrust into the starting lineup after fellow safety Jaquiski Tartt gingerly walked off of the field, suffering from an apparent torso injury.
After practice, head coach Kyle Shanahan shed a sliver of light on Tartt’s injury:
“We know it’s ribs type stuff. He’s getting looked at right now.”
Before Monday, the team had already been practicing without starting strong-safety Eric Reid and freshly converted free-safety Jimmie Ward, who suffered ankle and hamstring injuries respectively, but Tartt’s health may have deeper ramifications than a few bruised ribs.
Entering camp with just seven potential safeties, San Francisco is now down to only four, with Don Jones, Chanceller James, Jerome and Sunseri qualified to step in. With no timetable for Tartt’s return, and with Reid and Ward labeled as day-to-day, the question being asked is what will the 49ers will do to fill those spots.
Shanahan said everything was a possibility at this point, including players switching positions:
“When you lose three guys like that, we know Eric Reid is day-to-day, we gave a couple of other guys opportunities like Lorenzo (Jerome) and Vinnie (Sunseri). But yeah, as those numbers start going, we’ll need some more people in there just to get through camp. Whether you adjust at corner or end up signing another guy, it really depends on how long those guys are going to be out.”
The impact of not having any of the team’s top three safeties on the field was immediately felt. After Tartt’s exit, QBs Brian Hoyer, C.J. Beathard and Matt Barkley all began to see the deep portion of the field open up.
Beathard was the biggest beneficiary of the depleted secondary as he completed three deep passes for touchdowns, two of which to current camp stud, Marquise Goodwin, who hauled in two of the three long balls.
Barkley also took advantage of the weak spot on the field by airing out the ball. After practice, he commented on how the field looks different without the likes of Reid, Ward or Tartt:
“You can’t really replace a guy like Eric (Reid). And Jimmie (Ward) has come on strong the past couple of weeks too… It’s a little easier on us knowing they’re not in but we obviously wish they were out there right now.”
Traditionally, the free safety roams the back of the field, assisting other defensive backs in various coverage assignments. With nearly half of the team’s safeties gone, however, several lapses in communication occurred resulting in the chunk-yardage type of plays but that isn’t the only impact of losing starters at that position.
Barkley also mentioned the effect the new injuries have had on the offense’s run game as well, specifically in Reid’s case, considering his new role as a box-safety:
“It always sucks to see those guys go down. Especially in the run game with Eric (Reid) filling holes, I mean he’s playing like quarters or three-deep at the line of scrimmage sometimes because he has the speed to get back.”
Tartt aside, evidence points to Reid and Ward returning sooner rather than later. The more time the DBs spend sidelined means that they will have less time to learn the new system and concepts currently being implemented by defensive coordinator Robert Saleh.
With 11 days until their first preseason game in Kansas City, the pressure is on the 49ers medical staff and front office as to the next move to fix their safety problem. Especially if they don’t want two undrafted rookies in charge of the secondary.