49ers roster 2021: A budding gem in Talanoa Hufanga

Talanoa Hufanga, USC Trojans (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Talanoa Hufanga, USC Trojans (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images) /

Of all the 49ers’ day-three NFL Draft additions, USC safety Talanoa Hufanga seems to be generating the most buzz and should be a player to watch.

There are plenty of reasons for San Francisco 49ers to be excited about former USC safety Talanoa Hufanga, one of four players the Niners selected on day three of the 2021 NFL Draft.

Taken in Round 5 at No. 180 overall, Hufanga is one of those players who’s easy to root for. Despite showing some serious tenacity on the field at the collegiate level, his excitable personality and smile certainly made him an immediate rookie fan favorite.

And you need nothing more than his introductory press conference with San Francisco to understand why:


Hufanga, 6-foot-0 and 199 pounds, reminded general manager John Lynch of an old-school NFL safety with hard-hitting playmaking skills. While Hufanga might lack elite-level speed, he made up for it in a number of other different ways.

And while it’s easy to get hyped about late-round rookies, Hufanga could be pegged as another one of those hidden gems who winds up being an integral part of the 49ers defense for years to come.

Niner Noise’s “Who is?” series explores how it could happen.

Why Talanoa Hufanga impresses with 49ers early

If there was one thing standing out from Hufanga’s collegiate tenure, it was his ability to positively impact the play, both in the way of turnovers and sacks:

Talanoa Hufanga Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by CFB at Sports Reference
Generated 6/24/2021.

The Pac-12 is a conference where offense matters, so defenders need to be extra impressive to show up on NFL Draft big boards.

Particularly in Hufanga’s case, as he made the most out of USC’s abbreviated 2020 schedule of just six games, registering two forced fumbles, three sacks and four interceptions over that short span.

On top of that, Hufanga received some rave reviews from Sports Illustrated’s Grant Cohn during Week 2 of the Niners’ organized team activities:

"Intercepted a well-thrown pass from [Trey] Lance during 11-on-11s. Lance hit wide receiver Trent Sherfield in the hands near the sideline, but Hufanga snatched the ball out of Sherfield’s hands before he fell out of bounds. Incredible play. Hufanga finds interesting ways to make an impact."

Again, what Hufanga lacks in speed, he makes up for with playmaking abilities.

Why Talanoa Hufanga struggles with 49ers

It’s one thing to generate turnovers and register blitzing sacks at the collegiate level and then flash those skills during padless practices.

It’ll be another when the pads come on and Hufanga is now chasing after first- and second-string pass-catchers and running backs.

Hufanga ran a 4.64 40-time during his pro day, which isn’t terrible for a strong safety-type player but not exactly exemplary either. And there were times during his tenure at USC where his play speed didn’t look quite up to the part either.

Read More: 3 things to expect from Talanoa Hufanga in 2021

While Hufanga was solid in pass coverage at the collegiate level, it’s possible he might be more of a fit defending against the run down in the box, which will limit the versatility he had with the Trojans and could hurt his long-term trajectory.

Projected role, impact with 49ers in 2021 and beyond

Despite losing veteran defensive back Tarvarius Moore to an Achilles tear earlier this offseason, San Francisco is still notably stocked at safety entering training camp.

Behind the two starters, Jimmie Ward and Jaquiski Tartt, the 49ers will be looking to field competition between Hufanga, Tavon Wilson, Tony Jefferson, Jared Mayden, Kai Nacua and Marcell Harris for likely two backup spots on the roster.

Hufanga’s previously established versatility will go a long way towards helping him secure a roster spot, as will the fact he’s already preparing to be a quality special teams contributor in year one.

Even though he’s considered a bubble-watch player, it’s safe to say Hufanga is on the stronger side of things.

Things get a bit more interesting, though, when looking at Tartt’s injury history and the fact he’ll be an unrestricted free agent in 2022. While there’s a long way to go from being a promising rookie to an eventual starter, it’s not hard to see why fans are initially thinking Hufanga winds up emerging as Tartt’s replacement next year.

Especially if the rookie’s knack for making splash plays continues, even in a limited fashion this upcoming season.

Next. 49ers' 10 best late-round NFL Draft picks in franchise history. dark