49ers All-Pro veteran could be in danger of losing starting job to a rookie

San Francisco 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga (29)
San Francisco 49ers safety Talanoa Hufanga (29) / Ryan Kang/GettyImages

There's a possibility Talanoa Hufanga winds up losing his starting job to one of the 49ers' rookies, Malik Mustapha.

For the most part, each position on the San Francisco 49ers roster heading into 2024 is set with starters. Only a handful of spots are up for grabs.

But one of the more fluid positional situations this year is at safety where the Niners have a number of options but no clearly set tandem of starters.

What San Francisco does have, however, is a good problem: a number of starting-caliber options with some promising up-and-coming names.

A year ago, the 49ers kicked off the season with the starting duo of Tashaun Gipson and Talanoa Hufanga. But Hufanga suffered a torn ACL 10 games into 2023, which led to then-rookie defensive back Ji'Ayir Brown taking over the role and thriving within it.

Now, with 2024 just around the corner, Brown appears to be a logical choice to start, especially after the Niners opted not to re-sign Gipson in free agency.

One spot taken, another up for grabs. But, will Hufanga return as the starter alongside Brown? Or will it be someone else, perhaps a promising rookie?

Malik Mustapha may challenge Talanoa Hufanga for a starting job

Hufanga, who earned a first-team All-Pro nod his second year in the league, was another example of San Francisco's late-round draft gem-finding process. The 49ers hope to repeat this after selecting former Wake Forest defensive back Malik Mustapha in Round 4 last April.

While fellow All-Pro safety George Odum is in the mix, too, his prowess is much more focused on special teams, leaving both Hufanga and Mustapha as the primary names to watch in what could be an intriguing training camp battle later this summer.

There are two aspects to watch here.

First, will Hufanga be fully recovered from his torn ACL in time for summer workouts, potentially the start of the regular season? If not, could Mustapha bridge the gap as a year-one starter?

Second, what if Mustapha is simply the better overall player and earns the gig outright?

Related story: Malik Mustapha is poised to be the 49ers' next NFL Draft steal

If the Niners' defensive backs coach, Daniel Bullocks, is right about the rookie, the latter is certainly plausible.

"[Mustapha] can come down in a box, he can bang, he can blitz. He’s one of the best-tackling DBs in the draft," Bullocks told Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News. "As a defense, you want guys that can tackle because when I tell guys, 'What’s your number one stat? Your number one stat is gonna be tackles. You’re gonna be making more tackles than anything else.' So you need a guy that can tackle and have the right mindset and the mentality."

It's also important to note that Hufanga is entering a contract year and will be a free agent in 2025, suggesting San Francisco is already willing to turn the page in order to get both younger and cheaper amid rising roster costs.

Yet the 49ers won't hesitate to field the better overall player regardless of contract status.

In the end, though, that player could wind up being Mustapha.

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