Talanoa Hufanga Targeting Week 1 Return; Ji’Ayir Brown Likely To Remain 49ers Starter

Dre Greenlaw was not the only 49ers defensive standout unavailable for the conclusion of Super Bowl LVIII; the team played the stretch run without All-Pro safety Talanoa Hufanga. The two-year starter’s late-season ACL tear leaves his status for 2024 in question.

Hufanga suffered the injury during the 49ers’ Thanksgiving win over the Seahawks. It is not certain Hufanga joins Greenlaw as starters sidelined to open the season, but the contract-year DB is still a ways away from being ready to return.

The goal is to ready by Week 1,” Hufanga said, via 49ersWebZone.com’s David Bonilla. “The goal is to be in training camp, not at the very beginning, but to ramp me up correctly, just so it’s not, ‘Throw you out there to the wolves and good luck.'”

A former fifth-round pick, Hufanga showed himself to be a difference-maker at safety during the 2022 season. He became the second 49ers safety this century, joining Dashon Goldson (2012), to earn first-team All-Pro acclaim. Hufanga, 25, profiles as an extension candidate for a 49ers team flush with those. In the secondary alone, Hufanga joins Charvarius Ward and Deommodore Lenoir as contract-year cogs. Ward is targeting a 49ers extension; Hufanga stands to be in this conversation upon return from his knee injury.

After a four-interception 2022, Hufanga picked off three passes before his injury last season. The 49ers moved third-round rookie Ji’Ayir Brown into the lineup alongside Tashaun Gipson. Although Gipson has come up as a player the 49ers would consider re-signing, the San Jose Mercury News’ Cam Inman notes Brown looks to be locked into a starting role. This would shift the conversation of a San Francisco safety addition to that player merely being a placeholder until Hufanga returns.

The 49ers signed De’Vondre Campbell for a gig like this, as the three-year Packers starter is expected to begin the season as a three-down linebacker alongside Fred Warner until Greenlaw returns. Brown moving to a level in which the 49ers feel comfortable using him as a full-timer would change the conversation at safety, and it would give the defending NFC champions a low-cost piece on a team featuring several contract situations. Brown’s rookie contract runs through 2026.

The Penn State product started five games in place of Hufanga during the regular season and was in San Francisco’s lineup for its three playoff outings. He intercepted a Patrick Mahomes pass in the Super Bowl. While Gipson started the past two seasons with the 49ers, the well-traveled veteran has played 12 seasons and is not a lock to pursue a 13th.

San Francisco drafted Malik Mustapha in the fourth round and used All-Pro special-teamer George Odum as the first-stringer alongside Brown during the offseason program. If Gipson does not want to play an age-34 season, the 49ers would have some options as veteran insurance while Hufanga rehabs. A few free agent safeties, however, probably view themselves as overqualified for a placeholder/insurance gig. While the market includes Justin Simmons, Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams, they will likely hold out for a better opportunity. Marcus Maye and Eddie Jackson join this trio as unattached, and opportunities might be scarce come training camp. This should put the 49ers in good position to add if they choose to.

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