The San Francisco 49ers are currently sitting at 2-2 but could have easily been 4-0 at this point. There have been some disappointments, but surely some standouts as well. While we will have to wait until 2023 to see what Trey Lance has in store, we have been able to see a few other Niners step up to the plate in ways many may have not seen coming. Here are the three biggest surprises through the first four weeks for the 49ers.
49ers Safeties, Talanoa Hufanga and Tashaun Gipson
With Jimmie Ward being out with a hamstring injury the first four games of the season and the 49ers moving on from safety Jaquiski Tartt in free agency, the Niners have rolled out two new starting safeties this season. After the addition of cornerback Charvarius Ward, it was plausible to believe that the safety position may have been the biggest hole in an already elite defense. Little did we know that the safety position, even without Ward, would be one of the strongest position groups on the entire roster.
Entering Week Five, second-year safety Talanoa Hufanga currently ranks second among all safeties in the NFL on Pro Football Focus with a grade of 84.6. One of the biggest questions about Hufanga entering the season was how effective he would be in coverage. Hufanga also has a PFF grade of 83 in coverage which ranks third among all safeties in the NFL.
Hufanga has been flying around the field every week and always seems to be near the ball. He has his two first-career interceptions through the first four games with the second one being a game-clinching pick-six against Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford on Monday night. From being a ball-hawk to making tackles behind the line of scrimmage, Hufanga is truly ascending into stardom and should be considered one of the best safeties in the whole NFL as of now.
His partner in the secondary, veteran safety Tashaun Gipson, was signed shortly before the season started due to Jimmie Ward’s hamstring injury. It was thought at first Gipson would mostly be a camp body and probably wouldn’t have a significant role on the team during Ward’s absence. Again, wrong. Gipson ranks third in the NFL among all safeties on Pro Football Focus with a grade of 83.8, right below his counterpart Hufanga. He also has a grade of 82.8 against the run which ranks 6th at his position.
While PFF is not everything, it is nice to use as a reference that under certain metrics, the 49ers have two of the top three or five safeties in their secondary, and one of them isn’t even their true starter. Imagine the depth now with Ward returning to action this week. The Niners can count on their safeties and should be able to move Ward into the nickel in certain situations if they want to because of how well Gipson has played.
49ers Left Guard, Aaron Banks
The offensive line was another big question entering the season after the departure of Laken Tomlinson to the New York Jets and losing Alex Mack to retirement. With the left guard position, there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding Aaron Banks. The second-year guard didn’t get much playing time last season at all and 49er fans barely got to see him in action. It was tough for many to envision a mystery guard filling in the shoes of Tomlinson who just made a pro bowl in 2021. But so far he has been one of the most solid guards in the league.
If you compare his production so far through Week Four to Laken Tomlinson in New York, Banks has been much better. Neither guard has allowed a sack or quarterback hit this season. However, Banks has allowed only six pressures to Tomlinson’s 15 so far in 2022. Banks also ranks 15th among all guards on PFF. Even with time playing without all-pro Trent Williams by his side, the 25-year-old has been a rock on the line for the Niners.
49ers Edge Rusher, Samson Ebukam
Samson Ebukam has turned out to be a force on the other side of Nick Bosa. He’s off to a hot start this season already and has clearly shown improvement from last season. Using PFF as a reference once again, Ebukam currently ranks 19th among all edge defenders with a grade of 80.3. From PFF’s metrics, the improvement is dramatic compared to his overall grade of 66.8 last year. Once again, PFF grades are far from the end all be all, but just by watching Ebukam, it is easy to see his ferocious presence on defense.
In 2021, Ebukam totaled his career-high 4.5 sacks and 11 QB hits in all 17 games which included 11 starts. With last year being his first season in San Francisco, Ebukam took time to adjust to his role on defense for the 49ers. Now with a year of experience, he is set for his breakout season and may end up pricing himself out of the Niners’ budget next offseason.
Through just four games in 2022 so far, Ebukam already has three sacks and seven QB hits. He also already has 11 combined tackles pacing to improve from his total of 38 tackles last season. With Ebukam being a force, this should allow more opportunities for Nick Bosa on the opposite side of the line to cause havoc. The 49ers have truly built a force on defense and should be considered the best in the league at this point.
For the 49ers, we should see more standouts and surprises. It is also possible that people fall off as the season goes by. We will have to see if these individuals can remain consistent as the season goes on.