Marcio Jose Sanchez, AP
SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Injuries are suddenly piling up fast for the San Francisco 49ers in training camp.
All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis was wearing a black cast around the base of his right hand and wrist and was among more than a dozen players not participating in practice Thursday. Barely 45 minutes into the workout, trainers carted cornerback Chris Culliver off the field with an apparent left knee injury.
"There've been some nicks. You try to dodge bullets. Sometimes you don't dodge them all," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said.
Willis injured his hand for the third time in his career during one-on-one blocking drills Wednesday. He stood on the sidelines the rest of practice with his wrist and hand heavily wrapped along with fellow All-Pro middle linebacker NaVorro Bowman, who has been nursing a strained hip.
Harbaugh wouldn't confirm reports that Willis' hand was broken, reverting to his typical line on injuries that the linebacker was "working through something." But he said Willis will be back before the season opener against Green Bay on Sept. 8.
Culliver's injury appeared more serious. He was covering a punt and getting blocked by rookie Marcus Cooper when he went down in pain, holding his left knee and burying his head in his hands.
Harbaugh and players looked on as trainers attended to Culliver, who also had his right shoulder and pectoral area examined late in Wednesday's practice. General manager Trent Baalke consoled Culliver by putting his arm around the cornerback before he was carted off the field and taken to Stanford hospital for an MRI.
Fellow cornerback Perrish Cox, who was fielding the punt, said he saw Culliver on the ground as soon as he caught the ball.
"I walked over to see if he was OK," Cox said. "I told him, 'Keep your head up.' And I went back to catching returns. We wish him the best."
The injury is the latest in a series of setbacks for the 49ers this offseason.
Top wide receiver Michael Crabtree is rehabbing his surgically repaired right Achilles tendon and is expected to miss at least half the season — and likely more. Mario Manningham is coming off an ACL tear in his knee and is expected to be back "at some point" this season, Harbaugh has said.
Fellow wideouts Kyle Williams, A.J. Jenkins and Kassim Osgood each came off the field Tuesday with apparent leg issues and have sat out the past two days. And Quinton Patton can't catch passes due to a soft cast on his injured middle finger on his left hand. He has been running routes in a blue jersey.
Outside linebacker Aldon Smith and center Jonathan Goodwin also sat out practice due to unspecified injuries but did light stretching and agility exercises on an adjacent field with a handful of players. In addition, running backs Kendall Hunter (Achilles) and Marcus Lattimore (knee), defensive linemen Tank Carradine (knee) and Quinton Dial (toe), and tackle Luke Marquardt (foot) are on the active physically unable to perform or non-football injury lists.
Now Willis and Culliver are sidelined, too.
Willis has made the Pro Bowl in each of his first six seasons and has been an Associated Press first-team All-Pro five times. He had 88 tackles, two forced fumbles and two interceptions to anchor San Francisco's stout defense last season.
Willis played with a cast during his rookie season and late in the 2010 season. He also wore a cast on his hand during his second to last season at Mississippi.
Culliver had 47 tackles, two interceptions and one forced fumble last season while playing primarily as the team's third cornerback. He was drafted in the third round out of South Carolina in 2011.
"What it means right now is there are some guys getting an opportunity to show what they can do, which is a positive there. And there's people who have been doing that," Harbaugh said.
New cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha already had been taking plays away from Culliver in practice. Tramaine Brock and Cox will be expected to carry more of a load as well if Culliver is out for an extended period.
Michael Wilhoite, Nate Stupar and Nick Moody have taken the bulk of the backup linebacker snaps. Moody, a six-round draft pick out of Florida State who is making the transition from safety, filled in for Willis for most of Thursday's practice. He also has been on kickoff and punt coverage and both return teams.
While Moody was excited for more playing time in training camp, the fact it's coming because of injuries makes it bittersweet.
"It happens all around the league," Moody said. "Every time you turn on the TV somebody else is getting hurt. It's the nature of the game. You just hope everybody gets back as soon as they can."