I’ve said it before, and ill say it again, the 49er's defensive backs group is the weakest position group on the defense. San Francisco selected Talanoa Hufanga in the fifth round, and now he is forced to step up because of injuries to two strong safeties ahead of him.
A consensus All-American last season, Hufanga was everywhere on the field for the USC Trojans in a shortened season. He was featured at post safety, linebacker, and edge rusher when asked to blitz.
Durability concerns similar to Justin Hilliard may have caused Hufanga to slip in the draft. He broke his right collarbone twice and had to have surgery on his right shoulder after dislocation, all within two years. Just something to note when looking at the already banged-up strong safety group.
The presence of Jaquaski Tartt and Tarvarius Moore has been missed greatly in camp. Tavon Wilson has impressed the coaching staff with his veteran leadership, but there is still room for another safety to contribute immediately.
Good thing Talanoa Hufanga had his best practice on Friday. Hufanga’s greatest attribute is his motor. On film, he’s always around the ball because of his good pursuit. I expect Hufanga to have success against the run as his main way to contribute as a rookie.
Talanoa Hufanga all over the field in the first set of 11 on 11s - made at least three run stops at the LOS, looked really comfortable (as expected) playing in the box.— Jake Hutchinson (@hutchdiesel) August 6, 2021
Then played tight on a coverage sack for Jordan Willis on Trey Lance, nothing open
Hufanga turned heads yesterday, and it's good to hear he’s looking solid in the past game. He also held his own at post safety on Day 2 of Niners training camp.
I would think DeMeco Ryans would feature Hufanga in the box only, but if he can hold his own against the pass, it could free up opportunities for Jimmie Ward to be featured in different ways when playing Cover 3. Let’s look at some film to get a feel for how Hufanga will look heading into the preseason.
Hufanga showed he could be an effective situational pass-rusher last season against Oregon in the Pac-12 championship. DeMeco Ryans expressed he wants to blitz more, so Hufanga will have his chances in the preseason. Defeating running back blocks for sacks is definitely a way to earn a role. However, making a move against a tackle (second clip) won’t be as easy in the NFL.
Really nice practice for rookie S Talanoa Hufanga. Filled lanes in the run game and had a sack of Lance on a blitz. #49ers— Chris Biderman (@ChrisBiderman) August 6, 2021
D-line was thin today with absences from Arik Armstead, Samson Ebukam, Zach Kerr and Kentavious Street.
Hufanga getting sacks in practice is exactly what the 49ers need to aid their mild pass-rush. San Francisco did not feature a safety who registered a single sack last season. Hufanga could bring a new dynamic to the defense as Ryans looks to turn up the heat.
Hufanga’s biggest weakness may be making a play on the ball while it's in the air. These two clips are examples of Hufanga putting his foot in the ground and making a play on the ball. Playing through the receiver is key for a DB (first clip), and interceptions help when looking to increase takeaways from last season.
As mentioned before, Hufanga should naturally transition as a run-stuffer in the NFL. His ability to fit the run raised the question of he could play linebacker, but he isn’t tenacious as Marcell Harris is.
Getting a stop in short-yardage situations is key for safeties — especially when they're unblocked.
In the first clip, you can see Hufanga scrape down and make a tackle at post safety. Secondly, you see Hufanga make a stop on 4th and 1. Finally, you can see why Kyle Shanahan said he ‘loves to act like Troy Polamalu.’
A few areas he has to clean up
He doesn't normally take bad angles, but he often stops his feet before he makes a tackle. The first clip gives you a feel for his limited speed in space, although it could be just a poorly timed angle. Either way, the first clip was the most concerning clip I saw other than the struggles against as a pass defender.
A part of Hufangas coverage struggles is not playing with confidence and not knowing where the ball is. At times, you can see Hufanga grab when he doesn't need to because he doesn't trust his technique. It is pretty hard to defend the back shoulder throw, but he is actually in a good position and could've made a play if he got his head around.
Just more examples of Hufanga not making a play on the ball. Limiting explosive plays is huge in the NFL. So seeing how Hufanga holds up against the pass is something to observe when San Francisco faces Kansas City next weekend.
Hufanga looks to progress in pre-season games to come
Jaquaski Tartt has been lifted off the reserve/COVID-19, but now he’s on the PUP list. Tartt compliments Jimmie Ward in a very underrated way. Hufanga can look to gain the respect of coaches by showing out in the pre-season games. In a way, he could even jump veteran Tavon Wilson, who was mainly featured as a special teamer last year.
Hufanga’s trajectory is definitely an impact special team player for now. In conclusion, Hufanga may not have been a constant stand-out in practice, but there is plenty of time before the regular season. With Tarvarius Moore sustaining a major injury, Hufanga has a chance to have a solid rookie campaign.