Talanoa Hufanga has done more than shatter the label of being called an “average backup or special teamer” before he was drafted. The San Francisco 49ers‘ $3.7 million Pro Bowl safety is proving the 49ers outsmarted nine different NFL teams in nabbing him two years ago.
In tracing back to the 2021 NFL Draft, Hufanga was the 12th safety taken in that draft class — again passed over by nearly 10 franchises. He’s since become an All-Pro caliber talent and has emerged as a late round draft gem mention from draft analysts.
Hufanga was one of the main 49ers topic of discussions from draft expert for the NFL Network Daniel Jeremiah during a conference call with reporters on Thursday, April 20. Jeremiah not only spoke about the 49ers’ recent knack for finding late draft talents, but zeroed in on what got the 49ers to become convinced about the 6-foot-1, 210-pound box safety. Turned out, there was lots of voices helping convince the 49ers, then came observing an important area outside of “Huf’s” field skills.
“Hufanga, they raved about him at USC,” Jeremiah said (h/t 49ers Webzone). “He walked into that program and was a leader.”
Being vocal and being a motivator for teammates eventually sold the Niners. Then they looked past the athleticism from there as Jeremiah recalled.
“He was incredibly productive. He just didn’t run fast,” Jeremiah said. “So they were able to see past some of that stuff and see guys that are really, really smart, tough, and instinctive football players and plug them in.”
Who Passed on Hufanga? And How Have Those Safeties Fared?
So which teams landed on the list of passing on Hufanga? And how have their selections measured up? Here’s a look back.
Dolphins: Jevon Holland was the first safety taken at No. 36. Holland has had two solid seasons with a combined 17 pass deflections (more than Hufanga) and four interceptions. Hufanga, though, has more career tackles for a loss, forced fumbles and season interceptions (four in 2022).
Falcons: Richie Grant came after Holland in the second. The UCF star didn’t start his rookie year, but started in 17 games in ’22 and had two fewer picks and pass deflections than Hufanga.
Raiders: Las Vegas passed on Hufanga twice — at picks 43 and No. 143 with Trevon Moehrig and Tyree Gillespie. Moehrig has just one pick in 30 starts. Gillespie delivered just eight tackles his rookie season and has since joined Jacksonville.
Jaguars: Speaking of Jacksonville, the Jags took Andre Cisco as the first pick of the third round. Cisco put together a solid season of three picks and 10 pass deflections for the AFC South champs.
Jets: Jamien Sherwood was the first safety taken in the fifth round (146th overall). The Auburn Tiger has only started four games — all in his rookie season of 2021.
Broncos: Like Vegas, Denver passed on Hufanga twice. Caden Sterns went after Sherwood and before “Huf” in the fifth. The Texas Longhorn has four picks and nine PDs, but just five starts and 20 games of action. Their other safety selection Jamar Johnson out of Indiana (ninth safety taken) was released in August 2022 and has since surfaced in the XFL.
Commanders: Darrick Forrest was the first safety taken as selections 163 to 165 focused on that position. The Cincinnati Bearcat became a valuable contributor to Washington with four interceptions, nine deflections, two forced fumbles and 88 tackles.
Colts: Shawn Davis was the 165th pick to Indy. He never recorded a stat with the Colts and managed one tackle with Green Bay before being released in September.
Browns: Finally, Richard LeCounte was the last safety to go before Hufanga to the Cleveland Browns at No. 169. He’s since joined the Los Angeles Rams and has three career tackles.
Jeremiah Praises This Part of 49ers
Jeremiah believes the 49ers have shown to have an advantage in evaluating players beginning with a former Super Bowl winning safety as their general manager in John Lynch.
“Sometimes this thing is not evaluating these guys as players,” Jeremiah said. “It’s evaluating them as people and competitors and all that. I’ve got to believe it helps having John there as somebody who kind of epitomizes what you would want in a football player. He knows what it looks like. With him and [assistant general manager] Adam Peters, who I think is as good as anybody in the league at evaluating players, they’ve got a great personnel department.”
Then there’s the coach Kyle Shanahan, with Jeremiah saying: “Kyle has a really good idea of what he wants at every position. So when you get a coaching staff that gives you a good menu, and you get guys that know how to go find it, you get a lot of success.”