The ever-evolving football arms race between the offensive and defensive sides of the ball is leading to some interesting developments for both units at the NFL level.
Offenses are getting ever faster and looking for new ways to put weaponize spacing, put defenders in responsibility conflicts, and otherwise get their athletic playmakers the ball in space. Defenses, meanwhile, are looking for players who can play fast, play in space, and fill a variety of roles to adapt to offenses.
The pressures on the defensive side of the ball might be most obvious at the safety position. Safeties now come in just about every shape and size, from rangy 190-pound center-fielding free safeties to big 225-pound strong safeties who would probably have been considered small linebackers just a few years ago.
USC safety Talanoa Hufanga is one of those newer versatile safeties, playing just about every position from EDGE to free safety for the Trojans’ defense.
The New York Giants seem to be relatively set at the safety position, but the importance of versatility and depth to Patrick Graham’s defense could have them looking to reinforce that strength. Hufanga’s versatility and competitiveness could certainly catch their eye.
Prospect: Talanoa Hufanga
Games Watched: vs. BYU (2019), vs. UCLA (2020), vs. Washington State (2020)
Red Flags: Collarbone (2018, spring 2019), shoulder (2019)
Height: 6010 (6-foot-1)
Weight: 215 pounds
Games Played: 24
Tackles For a loss: 16.5
Forced Fumbles: 4
Passes Defensed: 8
Games Played: 6
Tackles For a loss: 5.5
Forced Fumbles: 2
Passes Defensed: 1
Best: Instincts, mental processing, play speed, downhill play, physicality
Worst: Range, lower body fluidity
Projection: A starting box safety or S/LB hybrid for a base nickel defense
(Note: Hufanga is S/LB number 15)
USC safety Talanoa Hufanga is a smart, instinctive, and versatile player with the size and physicality to start at the NFL level.
Hufanga played a number of roles in the USC defense, from a deep safety in Cover-2 packages to a psuedo-EDGE in some blitz packages. Hufanga is at his best as a box safety playing near the line of scrimmage — occasionally lining up as a linebacker in nickel or dime packages.
Hufanga is a smart safety, helping to align teammates and communicating well in the pre-snap phase. He is a highly instinctive player, often moving toward the play side before the ball is snapped, while also showing high processing speed to make adjustments or react to play-fakes nearly seamlessly. Hufanga is a remarkably physical safety, seemingly reveling in contact and rarely shying away from taking on blockers or delivering big hits. He wastes little to no time triggering downhill when he reads a running play and often beats prospective blockers to their spots.
Hufanga is a capable zone defender, particularly in the flat or hook/curl areas of the field. He is disciplined about picking up and passing off defenders who enter his zone, but also does a very good job of reading quarterbacks’ eyes. He trusts his instincts in coverage and is willing to gamble on jumping routes when the receiver is otherwise covered.
He is a sound tackler overall, able to deliver hard hits when playing downhill but also routinely wraps up to get ball carriers on the ground when playing in space.
Hufanga should not be asked to cover large zones or play in the deep middle area of the field as a free safety. He has limited range in coverage, and limited long speed makes taking good angles to the ball problematic when he has to cover any kind of a distance in pursuit. Likewise, some lower body stiffness makes man coverage a challenge, and he could be a liability as a slot defender.
It should also be noted that all of Hufanga’s interceptions came in 2020. While he played with much more confidence in underneath zones, this season could be an outlier rather than the start of a trend.
Overall Grade: 8.2 - This player has the potential to be an immediate starter in the correct situation, but also has some scheme limitations.
Talanoa Hufanga projects as a starting box safety for a defense which frequently runs Cover - 1 or Cover - 3 shells. He could also have upside for defenses as a safety/linebacker hybrid for defenses which play out of a nickel personnel base.
Hufanga isn’t a rangy, ballhawking, centerfield safety, but he should have plenty of fans among defensive coordinators. He is a player with good size, “DB” athleticism, but the mentality of a linebacker, which should fit well in a defense that is designed to counter modern spread offenses.
Hufanga is the kind of prospect who will play much faster than he will time. He shows an explosive lower body with good burst from a stand-still or downhill as a run defender (or pass rusher), but his long speed is definitely limited. That said, his instincts and processing speed more than make up for differences in athleticism with mental footwork.
While USC did make use of him as a deep safety, he would be best paired with a true centerfielding free safety at the NFL level. He is at his best making plays close to the line of scrimmage, either dropping into shallow coverage zones or firing into the backfield to disrupt running plays.