It's been a rough start for the 49ers as they find themselves at 1-2 heading into a Monday night showdown with the Los Angeles Rams. However, one silver lining to this unfavorable start has been the breakout of second-year safety Talanoa Hufanga.
Hufanga was selected in the fifth round with the 181st pick in the 2021 draft. Upon his arrival to the NFL, Hufanga stressed the importance of being able to contribute in any way that he could from day one, and by doing so gave us a glimpse of his team-first attitude that has elevated him to such a prominent role on an established defense in a little over a year.
“You have to have an open mindset to be versatile, any way you can get on the field and be ready for special teams as well. I think that’s a big component, this is a big statement but it’s something I’ve always preached, being a special teams pro bowler my first year is a goal of mine. I think a lot of guys get caught in playing right off the bat, and so for me I understand there is a level to it. I just want to be the best I possibly can be, so I’m just grateful for this opportunity.”
While Hufanga didn't get selected to the pro bowl in his rookie season, he did utilize the opportunity to make an impact with the special teams’ reps he was given. In Hufanga's rookie season, he played 40% of his snaps on special teams. In Year 2, that number is down to just 8%.
That drastic shift in snap percentage is a direct reflection of the work Hufanga has put in over the last 15 months to carve out a starting role on one of the most talented defenses in the entire NFL.
In his first season as a starting safety in the NFL, Hufanga has played at a level that places him in the upper echelon at his position league-wide. The hope going in was that he would be adequate, and already three weeks in, he has shattered those expectations and created an entirely new discussion.
What was once a question of whether or not Hufanga could stick as a starting safety in the NFL has rapidly shifted to, "is he destined to become one of the stars on the back end in this league?"
Pro Football Focus has a stat that tracks what they call "Stops." These stops that are charted are defined as "a tackle that constitutes a failure for the offense." But what exactly is their definition of failure for the offense?
PFF further defines it as "An offensive gain on first down that is kept to less than 40 percent of the line to gain, less than 50 percent of the line to gain on second down, and any third- or fourth-down play kept without a first down or touchdown."
Through three weeks of the season, Hufanga has recorded 11 stops, which is the most in the NFL among all safeties.
The next closest is Mike Edwards on the Buccaneers with 8. While operating in the box, Hufanga has been an absolute terror for opposing offenses attempting to run the football.
Hufanga's ability to trigger in the run game is already amongst the best in the entire NFL, and the impeccable instincts that he possesses near the line of scrimmage have been on full display early on this season.
Hufanga's ability to react and make a play from the backside has been beyond special as well.
The Seahawks offense only ran for 36 yards on an average of 2.6 yards per carry on Sunday— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) September 21, 2022
Great backside pursuit from Talanoa Hufanga here, but even more impressive is the way that four different 49ers defenders rallied to the ball to finish off this tackle pic.twitter.com/Yy3x7KIKyc
Hufanga's exceptional abilities and natural instincts have given defensive coordinator DeMeco Ryans another weapon in his arsenal, as Hufanga has been an absolute game wrecker when called upon to run blitz. Watch what he does to Broncos running back Melvin Gordon on this play that ended up in Denver's offense losing six yards on this rushing attempt.
Hufanga's abilities in the box have been beyond valuable, but he flashed that during his rookie season. What has really stood out about Hufanga's growth early on in year two has been his ability in coverage.
There wasn't a particularly large sample size to work off of to gauge how Hufanga would fare early on in a defense that asks a lot of its safeties and constantly leaves them on an island with a tough coverage assignment.
To put it plainly, Hufanga has shined in a massive way with the duties he has been tasked with in the pass game thus far. It started week one in Chicago, where Hufanga was put in a role he looked comfortable in last season as well as during the preseason.
Ryans had Hufanga playing a 'robber' role in a zone coverage which essentially tasks Hufanga with taking away or "robbing" any in-breaking routes over the middle of the field. Hufanga diagnosed the play perfectly and came away with his first career interception in the NFL.
Interception by Talanoa Hufanga on “3 Buzz” which is essentially zone robber— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) September 12, 2022
Looks like Fields never saw Hufanga after he bailed pre snap and Hufanga reads Fields eyes the entire way
Jumps the route after Darnell Mooney clears the hook defender (Warner) and picks this ball off pic.twitter.com/lQOprW9ucL
Hufanga's instincts aren't the only thing that have popped off the game film; his fundamentals and technique are extremely sound as well. In Week 2, he was left on an island with Seahawks wide receiver Tyler Lockett, and Hufanga played textbook catch/trail technique that allowed him to make a play on a ball that he tipped before Tashaun Gipson came down with the interception.
So much going on during this INT. Seahawks go empty. Niners bluff like they’re blitzing but end up having 8 in coverage. Ridgeway blows the play up by bull-rushing the center into Geno.— KP (@KP_Show) September 19, 2022
Bosa in cvg.
Hufanga plays a perfect catch/trail technique on Lockett & undercuts the throw. pic.twitter.com/9XNHAlvCFE
In that same game, the 49ers defense came out in a nickel quads coverage which is a match zone that has Mooney Ward pass Lockett off to Hufanga on this play. Hufanga is quickly able to fire toward on the spot on the field that Geno Smith was attempting to target Lockett in and break on the ball for a pass break up.
Seattle also had 10 players on the field when they ran this play, which is hilarious and should be celebrated every chance we get.
Was working on a cut up to highlight a Talanoa Hufanga PBU when I noticed something funny— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) September 21, 2022
Seattle’s offense ran this play with only 10 players on the field lol pic.twitter.com/cRMmXarbwI
One thing I keep coming back to while watching Hufanga is his ability to react on the fly while diagnosing a play while it is unfolding. There was a great example of this week three against Denver.
The 49ers' defense is in a quarters coverage in a two-high shell. On this play, Hufanga's responsibility is to double #1 if there is no threat from #2. Broncos wide receiver Courtland Sutton is #1 on this play, and without any threat from #2, Hufanga rightfully finds work to double #1.
Denver was running corner post on this play, a favorite of Russell Wilson's during his time in Seattle. It is a classic cover four beater, and it has Sutton running a dig route at about 15 yards while Jerry Jeudy runs the corner post to the opposite side of the field.
What stands out on this play is how quickly Hufanga is able to diagnose and then react to the in breaker from Sutton. Watch how seamlessly he flips his hips and stays with Sutton as he goes into his break.
49ers defense is in quarters coverage which means Hufanga doubles #1 if there is no threat from #2— Jordan Elliott (@splash_cousin) September 27, 2022
Denver is running corner post and has Courtland Sutton running a dig at around 15 yards
Watch how quickly Hufanga diagnoses the in breaker and turns his hips to stay with Sutton pic.twitter.com/6wG3Sp4LCx
Hufanga has been targeted nine times in coverage this season and has allowed a passer rating of just 2.8 on those targets. For those who may not be aware, that scale ranges from 0 to 158.3, illustrating just how dominant Hufanga has been.
Hufanga is currently on a trajectory to be a game-changing player at the NFL level for years to come. He is elite in the box, excels in coverage, and the most encouraging part is that he looks this polished while only having six starts under his belt at the NFL level.
It remains up in the air how the future will play out as Hufanga continues to develop, but one thing is certain. That open-mindedness Hufanga entered the league with combined with his work ethic and desire to get better every day, will only serve to expedite the already meteoric rise Hufanga finds himself on early in his NFL career.