49ers roster: Is it wise to slate Talanoa Hufanga as a starter in 2022?

Talanoa Hufanga #29 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images)
Talanoa Hufanga #29 of the San Francisco 49ers (Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images) /

The 49ers seem poised to hand the starting strong safety job to Talanoa Hufanga in 2022, but his coverage deficiencies last season raise questions.

San Francisco 49ers then-rookie safety Talanoa Hufanga primarily had one job his first year in the league after being drafted in Round 5 out of USC, and that was to excel on special teams.

Sure, Hufanga would act as a fill-in safety on defense here and there, sometimes serving on big-nickel packages in the wake of the Niners losing defensive back Tarvarius Moore to a season-ending Achilles tear the previous offseason.

Yet Hufanga’s addition was intended to be more of a long-term play.

Hufanga nevertheless saw 395 snaps on defense, which is a considerable amount, although his greatest moment his rookie season was scoring that memorable special teams touchdown on the blocked punt in the NFC divisional-round playoff game against the Green Bay Packers.

That probably made up for many of the lapses he had over the course of the regular season.

Talanoa Hufanga Defense & Fumbles Table

Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com
Generated 6/16/2022.

Hufanga had plenty of splash plays during his collegiate tenure, so this wasn’t necessarily a surprise. Yet there were plenty of concerns arising from his merely so-so coverage skills when on defense last year.

And now, San Francisco might be asking him to do much more heading into 2022 in the wake of not re-signing last year’s starting strong safety, Jaquiski Tartt.

Why Talanoa Hufanga improves for 49ers in a starting role

It’s often argued players make their biggest leaps at the pro level between years one and two, and that’s where we find Hufanga. Young defensive backs often struggle early in their respective careers, so one shouldn’t automatically assume the 6-foot, 200-pound safety won’t showcase massive improvement.

And Hufanga is earning some pretty lofty praise from his likely starting safety partner, Jimmie Ward:

"It seemed like [Hufanga] started damn near like 10 games or something. Just him seeing the game last year got him that much more comfortable this year. He’s covering. He has great angles in the run fit, and he knows his stuff."

In reality, Hufanga started only three games.

Nevertheless, the full season of work should provide Hufanga with the necessary experience to overcome whatever lack of speed he notably has on the back end, now relying on his improved football IQ and playmaking abilities to positively impact the defense.

Why Talanoa Hufanga winds up being a 49ers liability

While Tartt might best be remembered for his dropped would-be interception late in the 2022 NFC Championship game, there’s no denying his presence on the field did a lot for the 49ers defense, and Hufanga would have been a major downgrade had this starting swap happened a year ago.

As noted, Hufanga’s coverage speed and skills aren’t particularly great, and this is reflected by Pro Football Focus giving the then-rookie a so-so 60.2 pass-coverage grade, and even the eye test suggests that mark was generous.

Hufanga’s Pro Football Reference passer rating allowed came in at 114.1 with two touchdowns allowed on 24 targets.

That’s not particularly great. And while his increased experience may cut down on those negative figures, one shouldn’t expect Hufanga to be anywhere near Tartt’s caliber.

And that could prove to be problematic for the Niners, defensively.

Talanoa Hufanga’s projected role, impact for 49ers in 2022

San Francisco could still feasibly re-sign Tartt, and the longer time passes, it’s likely Tartt becomes cheaper. Couple that with the possibility Hufanga isn’t exactly equal to the task of being a full-time starter during training camp, and perhaps a reunion with Tartt isn’t out of the question.

For now, though, Hufanga appears tabbed to replace Tartt. The former was effectively given all first-team reps during offseason workouts thus far, relegating two of the 49ers’ offseason pickups, veteran George Odum and undrafted free-agent rookie Leon O’Neal Jr. to second- and third-team roles, respectively.

By nearly every account, neither Odum nor O’Neal did much of anything to push Hufanga for the starting job.

So, as things stand right now and barring any other transaction like a Tartt re-sign deal, Hufanga will be the Niners’ starting strong safety in 2022.

Fans may likely see the downgrade from Tartt, but they probably should expect noticeably better play from Hufanga than what he showed in year one, peformance levels in between what would have been the difference a year ago.

Although expecting more from Hufanga wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

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