SANTA CLARA -- All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith was not on the 49ers' field at the beginning of practice Thursday, casting serious doubt whether he will be available Sunday night to face the Seattle Seahawks.
Smith played the first four snaps of the second half against the New England Patriots before leaving the game with a left elbow injury. Coach Jim Harbaugh has been vague while discussing Smith's condition, saying only that Smith will play "if it's humanly possible."
Injured players have spoken privately about receiving warnings from the team about disclosing their injuries to the media. After Sunday's game, Smith said he could not comment on his condition. He underwent an MRI examination on Monday. Late in the exhibition season, the 49ers withheld the extent of outside linebacker Parys Haralson's injury before placing him on injured reserve with a torn triceps.
Smith's situation appeared serious Sunday night, as he could not return to play in the second half. The Patriots scored touchdowns on four consecutive drives without Smith on the field in the third and fourth quarters.
"Obviously, anytime you lose a great player, it's going to have an effect on you," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "You'd have your head in the sand if you didn't admit that. I think some of the issues we had, plays we could've stopped, didn't have any effect with him being out there."
Fangio said backup defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois is ready to fill in. Jean Francois ended a Patriots drive late in the game with a sack of Tom Brady.
"He can play both the banging game and got a little bit of athleticism, too," Fangio said. "He's a well-rounded player. He's the one guy in our front who can play all three spots. Nothing will change with him in there."
Safety Dashon Goldson said the entire 49ers defense will have to compensate for the potential loss of Smith.
"We definitely have some guys going to have to step up and carry that load for us," Goldson said.
SANTA CLARA – Safety Jimmie Ward was placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list to open training camp with a hamstring injury, the 49ers announced Friday morning.
General manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan stated on Thursday that all of their players were healthy and no players would be headed to PUP or the non-football injury list.
But that was before the 49ers were scheduled to have their conditioning test. Ward sustained the injury on Thursday during the team's conditioning test. The team lists him as "week to week."
He can be activated to begin practice at any time. Ward is also eligible to begin the regular season on the PUP list. Any player who opens the regular season on PUP is ineligible for the first six weeks of the season.
Ward is expected to be one of the key members of the 49ers' defense from the free safety position. His role is dubbed "The Eraser," fellow safety Eric Reid said, because of his role as a playmaker in the secondary. However, one of the major questions about Ward is his ability to remain healthy through the rigors of an NFL season.
Ward missed eight games as a rookie due to a foot injury. Last year, he sat out five games due to a shoulder injury.
SANTA CLARA – Carlos Hyde has been the 49ers' unchallenged starter since the organization allowed Frank Gore to leave in free agency after the 2014 season.
Finally, he has been challenged.
The 49ers drafted Joe Williams in the fourth round, signed veteran Tim Hightower and acquired Kapri Bibbs in a trade. Moreover, Hyde appears to be challenging himself, too.
“My goal is to be the No. 1 rushing running back in this league,” Hyde said. “I feel like I have the best opportunity to do that now with this new staff.”
General manager John Lynch said he has noticed Hyde “flipped a switch” in the offseason. Hyde remained in the Bay Area to use the 49ers’ facilities to work out and eat at the team’s cafeteria. At one point, he even asked coach Kyle Shanahan about being included on special teams.
Hyde reported to training camp Thursday at 228 pounds – the least he has weighed since his high-school days, he said. Hyde could be a good fit for Shanahan’s running scheme.
“It’s outside zone, which is downhill. I’m a downhill back. I feel like I fit the scheme very well,” said Hyde, who enters the final year of his contract.
Hyde had career-best totals of 988 yards and six touchdowns last season with a 4.6-yard average. Although the 49ers could use more a multi-pronged approach at running back, Hyde could be set up for a career year heading into free agency.
“I ran into him in the hall and he looks tremendous,” Lynch said. “He really has dedicated himself. He’s changed his body type this offseason and that to me at the least bit shows a commitment. There’s those stories, but we’re excited to see this whole thing as we take the next step.”