The 49ers have the best defense in the NFL. That’s hardly debatable. The Niners boast the best defensive line and linebacking units in the league. Their secondary flies under the radar, and that group has been seen as a liability in the past.
You can thank Talanoa Hufanga for that. He burst onto the scene in 2022 with four interceptions during the first ten weeks of the season. Hufanga made more splash plays last year than arguably every other safety since Kyle Shanahan took over combined.
ESPN is continuing their player rankings, and Hufanga cracked the top-10 list for safeties:
Highest ranking: 6 | Lowest ranking: Unranked
Age: 23 | Last year’s ranking: Unranked
Hufanga impressively appeared on more than 70% of ballots. Yes, members of San Francisco’s vaunted defense get plenty of built-in hype. And, yes, he has a dominant front seven working in front of him.
But evaluators have seen a natural playmaker in his 20 career starts.
“Instincts — he gets the ball, doesn’t run fast but is smart, in the right position,” an NFC exec said. “In that defense, that goes a long way.”
Hufanga was one of five NFL safeties with at least 95 tackles and four or more interceptions last season. On 40 targets as the nearest defender, Hufanga allowed 235 yards and deflected nine passes.
When you’re watching the Niners play, you don’t come away thinking, “Hufanga is only making plays because of their front-7.” Hufanga showed the value of not only being in the correct spot last year but what happens when you can catch the ball.
It’ll be interesting to see where Hufanga’s career goes from here. When you hit the ground running with an All-Pro season, expectations can only get worse from here. It’s unrealistic for Talanoa to live on the first-team All-Pro for the duration of his career.
With that said, Hufanga can improve as a player and still not receive the same recognition or awards. But he earned his spot on this list.