49ers must now give rookie Talanoa Hufanga chance to shine

San Francisco 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga (29) Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
San Francisco 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga (29) Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

The 49ers are going to be without starting strong safety Jaquiski Tartt for a while, meaning rookie Talanoa Hufanga is going to get his first extended looks.

Unfortunate as it might be, it was only a matter of time before the San Francisco 49ers‘ starting strong safety, Jaquiski Tartt, ended up suffering a lengthy injury this season.

After dealing with a turf-toe injury already this year, Tartt still managed to start all six Niners games in 2021 before suffering a bone bruise on his knee in the Week 7 home loss to the Indianapolis Colts. Head coach Kyle Shanahan told reporters on Monday Tartt would “be out a few weeks.”

Tartt makes San Francisco’s defense better. There’s no question there. But in order for a player to make his defense better, he has to be on the field.

Sadly enough for Tartt, especially amid a contract year, he won’t be able to live up to that for the immediate future, and it also adds yet one more chapter in what’s turned into an elongated injury history in the past four-plus years.

But it does open up an opportunity for another.

49ers can finally get a good look at Talanoa Hufanga

The 49ers’ Round 5 NFL Draft rookie out of USC, safety Talanoa Hufanga, was a bit of a training camp darling this year already, making some splash plays during practices and even carrying some of those over to the preseason.

Yet Tartt’s presence on the depth chart meant Hufanga would be little more than a reserve depth-chart option and someone who could contribute a lot on special teams.

In the latter regard, Hufanga has made that kind of impact, appearing on 79 percent of special teams plays this season. But after Tartt had one gaffe in Week 7 before getting hurt, Hufanga was placed in on defense against the Colts, and he would finish the game once Tartt exited with his injury, netting a total of 34 defensive snaps.

Now, with Tartt out for a while, the 6-foot, 200-pound defensive back who recorded four interceptions over six games with the Trojans in 2020 can finally put some lengthy game tape together at the pro level.

What 49ers will want to see from Talanoa Hufanga

It’s still premature to assume Hufanga will automatically be Tartt’s replacement next season, assuming the Niners aren’t going to re-sign the veteran.

But at least the introductory analysis will include whether or not Hufanga can continue the playmaking ways that helped get him drafted, including being a strong-side pass-rushing specialist who had 6.5 sacks his last two years in college in addition to forcing four fumbles during that span.

Generating turnovers are great, yes. Yet the key element will be seeing if Hufanga is equally adept at both pass coverage and run-stopping efforts.

In the latter department, Hufanga’s college tape showed a solid ability to do this, yet his straight-line speed was questionable enough to wonder if he could keep up with NFL-level tight ends and running backs.

At least in the preseason, San Francisco seemed comfortable enough giving Hufanga some single-high safety looks, suggesting a level of confidence in his ranginess despite the speed concerns.

Related Story: 3 things to expect from 49ers rookie Talanoa Hufanga

During the preseason, Hufanga posted a Pro Football Focus pass-coverage grade of 63.0 with opposing quarterbacks posting a 56.3 passer rating when targeting him. Again, preseason narratives apply. But, at least based on that data, the 49ers have some positive upsides to work with.

If anything, the next couple of weeks could be a great audition for Hufanga to give the Niners confidence in moving on from the oft-injured Tartt next season.

That’s the hope anyway.

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