SANTA CLARA -- If rookie free safety Eric Reid wants to prove he'll be ready to face Aaron Rodgers in Week 1, he can start by making a strong showing against another NFL icon Thursday.
Reid wants to test his skills against quarterback Peyton Manning in the 49ers' exhibition opener against the Denver Broncos at Candlestick Park.
"That would be awesome," Reid said before practice Monday. "I think that would set the tone for my career, going against one of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League."
Reid, the 49ers' first-round draft pick (18th overall), has impressed coaches and veterans as a quick learner at training camp. But it's another thing to match wits with Manning, the 12-time Pro Bowler and four-time MVP.
As strong safety Donte Whitner said when asked about Reid: "The potential is always there. But potential can get you beat (if you're) being rushed out there and playing against some of the best quarterbacks in the National Football League. You're not ready, experience-wise."
The starters Thursday are expected to make only blink-and-you'll-miss-them appearances, which means Manning might play a series or two.
Whether Reid will be on the field at the same time remains in question. There's no guarantee he'll start. The 6-foot-1, 213-pounder out of LSU is in a four-way competition to replace Dashon Goldson as the starting free safety, with Craig Dahl, Trenton Robinson and C.J. Spillman also in the mix.
All four have spent time with the No. 1 unit as part of an even rotation. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has warned that nothing is given, not even to first-round picks.
"That's Coach's decision," he said. "Right now, I'm just worried about learning my plays, going out to practice today and getting better."
Identifying an heir to Goldson, a two-time Pro Bowler, is among the most pressing camp questions for the defending NFC champs. Now also reeling from the loss of third cornerback Chris Culliver (ACL tear), the 49ers secondary will be challenged as early as the regular-season opener against Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 8 at Candlestick Park.
Rodgers threw 39 touchdown passes and led the NFL with a 108.0 passer rating last season. After that, the 49ers get two more notable quarterbacks: Seattle's Russell Wilson and Indianapolis' Andrew Luck.
That's why Whitner would love to see Reid get a taste of what's coming. Facing a master like Manning would be a nice sneak preview.
"I think it would be great," the eighth-year veteran said. "The only thing it might cost you is a little confidence if you get beat. But it won't cost you in the win column, and this is where he's going to gain his experience."
Whitner got his own brutal welcome while with the Buffalo Bills in 2006. In his NFL debut, he faced Tom Brady of the New England Patriots in the regular-season opener. Whitner had a fourth-quarter interception in that game.
"I was thrown into the fire," Whitner said. "Being a top-10 pick, I had to go out there and start Day 1, Game 1 against Tom Brady. So I understand what Eric's going through. And he's trying to be out there Day 1, Game 1 against Aaron Rodgers. It's tough."
In those days, Whitner learned at the feet of savvy veteran Troy Vincent. Now, Reid is learning from Whitner, who sits next to Reid at meetings.
The rookie said: "He's a great guy to work with. He's on top of his plays all the time." Reid also likes that Whitner doesn't act like he knows everything. The veteran is quick to clarify things with coaches if a scheme gets fuzzy.
"For me, that's good, knowing that a guy who has been in the system for a couple of years isn't scared to ask coach a question if he's confused," Reid said. "It lets me know that it's OK if I don't understand something."
McVay's tenure with the 49ers began in 1979 as director of player personnel with then-coach Bill Walsh. McVay served as general manager from 1983-94 and returned to the franchise as the director of football operations from 1999-2003.
McVay, 82, will become the hall's 24th inductee Oct. 12, and he will be recognized at halftime of the next day's game against the Arizona Cardinals.
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