SANTA CLARA -- Kyle Shanahan does not mean to be, uh, difficult.
Well, actually, yes . . . yes, he does.
The first-year coach of the 49ers goes into the season opener on Sunday against the Carolina Panthers with the advantage of the unknown. He knows all about the Panthers, based on preparing to face that veteran defense four times over the past two seasons while offensive coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons.
And while the Panthers know all about Shanahan’s style of offense from his time in the NFC South, things are bound to change with him running the 49ers' offense. After all, Matt Ryan is no longer his quarterback; Julio Jones is no longer his receiver; and he does not have running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman.
That is why Shanahan, who was more forthright than most coaches during training camp, is not going to divulge how the 49ers are going to feature their personnel on Sunday at Levi's Stadium.
“Brian Hoyer’s starting, I promise you guys that,” Shanahan said of the 49ers’ quarterback. "(Joe) Staley’s starting. Everyone else, we’ll find out on Sunday. I don’t mean to be a d---.
“It’s the season now, if there’s any gray area we’ll figure it out on Sunday.”
Of course, the 49ers have already figured it out. It’s the rest of us – and that includes the Panthers -- who will figure out on Sunday how the 49ers will deploy their personnel.
And, yes, there are still plenty of questions:
Who starts at free safety?
Jimmie Ward does not figure to be available for Sunday’s game. After all, Ward sustained a hamstring injury during the team’s conditioning test on the eve of the team’s first practice and has not taken part in a full practice this entire summer.
Undrafted rookie Lorenzo Jerome started the first two exhibition games in place of Ward. But Jaquiski Tartt is the likely pick to start against Cam Newton and the Panthers.
Tartt is a third-year player with 14 career starts. Jerome earned his place on the roster, but the 49ers need more experience on a snap-to-snap basis.
The 49ers will feature an eight-man front on base downs. Tartt and Eric Reid are interchangeable with each possessing the size and strength to hold up in the run game.
But this does not mean that Jerome will be a mere bystander. In passing situations, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh has the option of bringing in Jerome as a sixth defensive back and replacing linebacker NaVorro Bowman. That is how the 49ers approached it during the third exhibition game, which is the closest approximation to the regular season.
Will Hyde and Breida share the load?
This is a huge season for running back Carlos Hyde. This is his contract year and his future is unsettled.
The 49ers have plenty of money to spend on extensions, and Hyde has a chance to prove the organization’s future is in better hands with his hands on the football.
To Hyde’s credit, he was magnanimous when talking about how rookie backup Matt Breida will be incorporated into the 49ers’ offense this season.
“He’s going to be used just as much as I’ll be used,” Hyde said. “So it’ll be good for us. We keep each other fresh and tear this season up.”
But it is difficult to believe Breida will be used as much as Hyde, who came to camp in tremendous physical condition and should thrive in Shanahan’s zone scheme. More than likely, the 49ers will give Breida a smaller package of plays and find a specific role for him to be used in spot duty.
Will Thomas take over as a starter?
The 49ers had Solomon Thomas rated as the No. 2 prospect in the draft behind Myles Garrett. By no means has Thomas been a disappointment. But Thomas got off to a slow start because of the restrictions on when he could join the 49ers’ offseason program.
Look for Tank Carradine to serve as the 49ers’ starter at the “big end” position. Why? Carradine has not done much in his four seasons with the club but Saleh has found something that Carradine does better than just about anyone in the league.
“With Tank, when I say ‘elite,’ I’m talking as a run-down, six-technique, someone who just can really dominate his edge and own the line of scrimmage,” said Saleh, referring to run downs when Carradine is lined up over the opposing tight end.
Thomas will see plenty of action, and he might even be on the field to start the game, depending on the personnel group the Panthers send onto the field for the first snap of the game. Thomas can be expected to play a significant role in the 49ers’ defense on third downs.