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49ers preseason rookie report: Talanoa Hufanga has put himself in a position to start

Hufanaga isn’t the only rookie defensive back that’s impressed.

NFL: AUG 22 Preseason - 49ers at Chargers Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While we’re all focused on Trey Lance, and for a good reason, the 49ers have a couple of other rookies who deserve plenty of praise for their preseason performance.

Aaron Banks and Trey Sermon both missed Sunday’s game against the Chargers due to injuries. Elijah Mitchell is already sidelined, so he didn’t play, either. Since we’ve already gone in-depth about Lance’s play, let’s talk about the rest of the rookies who suited up for the Niners.

CB Ambry Thomas

Thomas still has the “deer in headlights” look at times. First, Thomas gave up a 39-yard reception where he was in a good initial position, but he looked back for the pass too early, which took him out of phase. Then, Thomas allowed another completion on a scramble drill with more of the same issues: bad eyes.

Thomas could stand to be more assertive. He seems to be at his best in press coverage, but Thomas tends to miss his jam even then. It’s not that he’s playing poorly. For a Day 3 rookie cornerback, he’s fine.

The difference is that the other two defensive backs have played better, so it looks as though Thomas is playing worse. His stat line doesn’t help, as Thomas has allowed ten receptions on 13 targets for 116 yards and two penalties this preseason.

Ambry did have a nice run fit where he was aggressive and tackled the running back near the line of scrimmage.

OL Jaylon Moore

Jaylon Moore has seen extensive action this preseason as he’s logged over 100 snaps. Moore has allowed one sack, three pressures, and a QB hit. The good news is Moore hasn’t given up anything in the first quarter when he’s played with the starters or the 49ers two-deep roster. That context is important.

Maybe the 49ers should trade all of their picks from now on and only select players in the fifth round. The three fifth-rounders from this draft class are off to a hot start. Moore is playing out of position, which head coach Kyle Shanahan addressed on Monday:

“We’re trying to figure out who is our best eight or nine guys to keep on the roster. Based off some injuries and stuff, we knew when we took Jaylon, we could throw them at either one. Similar to how we looked at [OL Colton] McKivitz when we took him too.

First of all, where is his best chance for him to be part of that team and make those eight or nine guys? And once he does that, you’ve got to be ready everywhere. So we’d love to get him some more reps inside, but with some of the injuries we’ve had in camp, we haven’t been able to, which I do think has been a good thing for him at tackle.

It’s very rare you get to play in a whole game like he did like that. I think he’s gotten better each week with experience and I’m happy about how he’s coming along.”

Moore was beaten to the inside once, but other than that, he had a pretty clean game. I thought Moore showed well as a run blocker too.

It’s encouraging that Moore doesn’t look out of place. The NFL isn’t too big for him. Even during joint practices with the Chargers, Moore held his own.

His future in the NFL is likely at guard. We’re going to need San Francisco’s offensive line to get healthy before we see that. When that happens, don’t be surprised if Moore gets a chance to not only compete but win the right guard position.

CB Demmodore Lenoir

Lenoir has been targeted six times this preseason and has yet to allow a catch. Outside of his targets, you can see that the rookie understands leverage and route concepts. I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but he and the next guy we’ll talk about have been impressive, and there’s no other way around it.

During the same play where Thomas gave up the deep reception, Lenoir had his man pinned to the sideline on the opposite side. Even on plays where Lenoir gets beaten at the line of scrimmage, he doesn’t panic, gets to the correct shoulder, and is back in phase with the receiver.

Even on Lenoir’s pass breakup, he baited the QB to throw it and broke on the pass in time to make a play.

If I were to give Lenoir some “bad cop” analysis, it’s finding the ball in the air without losing track of his man. Nevertheless, there is a lot to like about Lenoir’s game. He may not be ready yet, but the 49ers should feel comfortable if the time comes when 38 has to take the field.

S Talanoa Hufanga

After the last preseason game, I was a little leery of rushing and crowning Hufanga as he had a few mistakes. However, you can see he’s becoming more and more comfortable and just getting better the more he plays.

Shanahan was asked if Hufanaga has given himself an opportunity to start this season:

“Yes, I think Hufanga with the way he’s played these last two weeks and the way he’s been in practice, I think he’s definitely given himself an opportunity. Obviously [S Jaquiski] Tartt has been out, PUP, and [S] Tavon [Wilson] has had a real good camp too here, so we’ll see how that finishes out.

Hufanaga is a walking one-liner as he defines playing with your hair on fire. The rookie out of USC plays without hesitation, which is how he ended up unblocked in the Chargers backfield.

Hufanaga has played 64 snaps, with 40 in coverage, and that’s where he’s been at his best. Hufanaga consistently takes away throwing windows, which is why you saw the Chargers quarterback often double-clutching.

At times, it seemed as though Hufanaga knew which routes were coming. However, he’s at his best when he’s playing over the intermediate part of the field and robbing routes. Hufanaga’s play speed isn’t an issue here as he’s a step ahead with his recognition.

I don’t have any negatives for Hufanaga after his second preseason game. He’s exciting, plays with energy, knows his assignment, and executes it. Even when Hufanaga played in the box as a quasi-linebacker, you could tell he belonged.

He’s going to play and play often. So when that happens, it’s deserved.