Training camp battleground: Free safety

This week, SFI takes a look at what should be some of the most competitive and consequential battles for the several jobs that are up for grabs this summer at 49ers training camp. Today: Free safety

This promises to be perhaps the most important battle for a starting position in training camp as the Niners look to replace Zack Bronson, their starting free safety most of the past four seasons who was released in June.

The Niners have projected starters in place at virtually every position entering summer camp, but that's not necessarily the case at free safety, where fifth-year veteran Ronnie Heard and second-year 49er Dwaine Carpenter are running neck-and neck-coming out of spring drills with neither designated as the starter.

"Between Ronnie and Dwaine, that will be a battle," Niners coach Dennis Erickson said. "I wouldn't say anything until we get into training camp."

Heard has experience in the San Francisco system, including 12 career starts - two of them in the playoffs. He had four interceptions in 2002 and one pick last year, when he played in 12 games and started one.

Carpenter, an Arena League product, started one game at cornerback and one at free safety last year and impressed coaches with his versatile and physical play. The Niners appeared to anoint Carpenter as the projected 2004 starter after he started the season finale at free safety last year, but the team then re-signed Heard in the offseason and he impressed with his smooth, heady play during spring drills.

"Ronnie is experienced, and his experience at playing safety gives him a little bit of an advantage going into training camp," Erickson said. "Dwaine's been (moved) all over the place. At least he's getting settled in one position now."

Coaches say that Heard has been doing a fine job with the important mental aspect of the position, while Carpenter can perhaps do more things with his athleticism and they like the progress he has made this spring.

The bottom line for the starting role entering summer camp?

"I think it's still wide open," Niners secondary coach Ron Lynn said.

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