Football

Talanoa Hufanga may slip to Day 3 of the 2021 NFL Draft... Here’s why

The talented safety has some red flags that offset his underrated positive attributes.

Talanoa Hufanga, who was the backbone of the Trojans’ defense in 2020, garnered national attention due to his impressive play in his final year as a Trojan. Hufanga was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, in addition to earning AP First Team All-American honors. He decided to forego his final year of NCAA eligibility in December, choosing to enter the 2021 NFL Draft.

Hufanga boasted major numbers during his three-year career as a Trojan, with 203 tackles, 6.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and four interceptions (all in four consecutive games in 2020). It wasn’t hard to notice Hufanga’s importance to the USC defense, especially throughout this past season. The 6-foot, 199-pound strong safety was able to line up in numerous positions under defensive coordinator Todd Orlando, allowing Hufanga to make plays in every part of the field.

If you want to see Hufanga’s next-level potential, look no further than this interception against Washington State last year:

Hufanga lines up at the line of scrimmage as part of an all-out blitz and draws a blocker to create space for redshirt junior safety Chase Williams, who is also blitzing off the edge. This forces Washington State sophomore quarterback Jayden de Laura to get the ball out quickly. Hufanga then drops back to cover the crossing route, and tips de Laura’s pass to himself for an interception, before hurdling an oncoming tackler en route to a 37-yard return that puts his offense inside the red zone.

After declaring for the draft, Hufanga began training for his Pro Day and the draft with Hall of Famer and fellow Trojan safety Troy Polamalu. While Hufanga might not have the same generational physical traits as Polamalu, the pair share a similar psychological approach to football.

During his Pro Day on March 24, Hufanga showed off with strong broad jump, shuttle and three-cone drills that displayed his fluidity and sharpness. He ran a 4.61 40-yard dash, which is a subpar mark for a safety, although better than expected for Hufanga.

So where does all of this place Hufanga as we head into this week’s draft?

Let’s start with the positives. As previously mentioned, Hufanga’s intelligence and versatility will allow him to adapt and play in various positions and defensive schemes in the NFL. He can defend the run well as an extra defender in the box and is able to make plays on the ball, as evidenced by his six forced turnovers in 2020. His tough, explosive approach to tackling gives him some appeal to NFL teams as well.

However, pro scouts agree on two main flaws that will likely cause Hufanga to wait until Saturday before hearing his name called. First, Hufanga has a rather extensive injury history, including two broken collarbones, a shoulder sprain and a concussion; therefore, NFL teams have to question his durability going forward, although he did stay healthy in 2020. Hufanga’s speed is also a red flag, which limits his abilities in pass coverage and making tackles. Analysts always mention the jump in speed between college and the NFL, and Hufanga might not have the pace to keep up at the next level.

With all of those attributes considered, most mock drafts place Hufanga in and around Round 4. ESPN has the safety ranked rather low, with a 46 out of 100 grade that would place him as a Day 3 pick. Chad Reuter of NFL.com and Dane Brugler of The Athletic agree on Hufanga being selected by Houston in Round 5, as the Texans are in desperate need of playmakers on defense. Other mock drafts from CBS Sports, Pro Football Network and Sporting News project him to go late in Round 3 or Round 4; other potential fits include the Cowboys, Vikings and Steelers, due to Hufanga’s aforementioned relationship to Pittsburgh legend Polamalu.

The 2021 NFL Draft begins Thursday at 5 p.m. and will be broadcast on ESPN, ABC and NFL Network.