That’s right, though Jimmie Ward, the team’s stalwart free safety and occasional slot cornerback, is widely regarded at the Niners’ top talent at the back end of DeMeco Ryan’s defense, he’s been on IR with a hamstring injury. No, the 49ers-rated defensive player and the second-best overall ranked safety in the NFL is none other than Talanoa Hufanga, the Niners’ fifth-round pick out of USC in 2021.
Playing the strong safety spot long manned by 2015 second-round pick Jaquiski Tartt, Hufanga ranks second among 71 qualifying safeties in coverage, 10th among 69 qualifying safeties against the run, and even has a pass-rushing grade of 66.8, which ranks 13th among 31 qualifying safeties. He’s split his time pretty evenly between the box and the back-end of the defense and currently leads the Niners in passes defensed at three, in addition to an interception in Week 1.
Paired up with Tashaun Gipson, who himself ranks fourth in defensive grade according to PFF, Hufanga’s game has elevated considerably from his rookie form and now looks like a favorite to not only remain on the field when Ward is eligible to play but could form an elite tandem the likes of which the Northern Illinois product has never been a part of.
The San Francisco 49ers Expect Jimmie Ward Back By Week 5
When asked on the Tolbert & Copes show about the status of Ward’s hamstring on September 2nd, Kyle Shanahan expressed optimism that the veteran safety would be back on the field by Week 5, when he will be eligible to return.
“Really hoping to get him back, I believe it’s Week 5, the earliest he can come back,” Shanahan told the hosts as transcribed by NBC Sports Bay Area. “He should be able to do that, but we definitely don’t want to rush him back and have him do it again and then miss the whole year.”
“So that’s our goal, and hopefully, it’ll be able to come true.”
Fortunately for Shanahan, the pairing of Gipson and Hufanga should be able to hold things down nicely until Ward is able to return.
Don’t Expect A Jaquiski Tartt Reunion Any Time Soon
Speaking with Morning Roast on 95.7 the Game on September 8th, Tartt was asked if he’d had any conversations with the 49ers heading into the 2022 NFL season and gave a very interesting response that feels far more interesting after two weeks of on-field play, as transcribed by Niners Wire.
“I mean, I’ve talked to the coaches, but it’s been nothing official,” Tartt said. “As far as that situation, for the right price of course I would be back. But at the end of the day if it’s not the right price I’m definitely not going back. For me it’s just as far as what makes sense. Putting my body through a lot for a minimum is kinda like … you know.”
“I’ve made enough of money. I’ve been very fortunate to be able to play the game and be with the 49ers for seven years. So, like I said, it’s just the right situation. If it was the right situation for me, I’d do it. If not, I’m good where I’m at.”
Unfortunately for Tartt, that situation didn’t come in Philadelphia, as the eighth-year pro missed crucial time on the field and was never properly afforded a chance to start opposite Marcus Epps or Anthony Harris, the team’s safety tandem at the time.
“I mean at this point of my career I think it’s more about the business side of football,” Tartt said. “It’s a lot of stuff out there about me not being able to perform at a high level, but that’s the business side. When you reach the business side it’s all about opportunity. I assumed I would have an opportunity in Philadelphia, but from Day 1 that wasn’t what it was. So at the end of the day I’m all about just chilling and feeling if the right situation occurs.”
Unfortunately for Tartt, the Niners’ depth at the safety position, especially when Ward returns, makes a reunion rather unlikely moving forward.