In today’s NFL, versatility is the key at the safety position. Teams covet strong safeties who can play nickel linebacker and free safeties that can play some slot cornerback.
It should come as no surprise then that given there’s a young player in the Class of 2017 who (in theory) can do just about all of those things that Connecticut safety Obi Melifonwu is garnering plenty of interest leading up to this year’s draft.
Heading into this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, one AFC personnel director told Lance Zierlein of NFL.com that he expected the 6-foot-4, 224-pound Melifonwu, who tallied 118 tackles and four interceptions in 2016, to blow the roof off Lucas Oil Stadium.
“He’s a freak,” the executive said. “He’s going to blow away the combine. He’s fast and will post some of the best vertical and broad numbers at his position. He’s going to get a lot better in the pros and he has that elite size that will get him overdrafted.”
That personnel director was dead on. Melifonwu didn’t just have the best vertical and broad jump numbers among safeties. Or among defensive backs. He had the best numbers period – including a broad jump that was 5 inches farther than any other player. Melifonwu also peeled off a 4.40-second 40-yard dash.
Melifonwu preceded those numbers with a solid showing at the Senior Bowl and followed them up with a strong outing at UConn’s pro day. He told Shawn McGrath of SBNation his goal was to show that he has a well-rounded skill set.
“I think the whole process, from my senior season, to the Senior Bowl, the combine and now Pro Days have all been beneficial and a help,” Melifonwu said. “I think [the Senior Bowl] helped reassure what I could already do. I wanted to show, being a taller guy, that I’m smoother out of my breaks. I wanted to show I had a little bit of range.”
It would appear that Melifonwu has accomplished that goal. Of the five mock drafts currently live at CBS Sports, Melifonwu is a first-round pick in all five. Rob Rang believes Melifonwu is headed to the Steel City, projecting him to be taken by the Pittsburgh Steelers at No. 30.
“Two years ago,” Rang said, “it was former Husky Byron Jones who wowed scouts at the combine with his sheer athleticism, earning a first round pick by Dallas. Melifonwu was one of this year’s brightest stars in Indianapolis, producing a 4.40-second 40-yard dash, 44-inch vertical and 11-feet-3-inch broad jump at 6-foot-4 and 224 pounds. Better yet, Melifonwu’s athleticism translates onto the field and the Steelers could use his range in the deep patrol.”
Colleague Dane Brugler thinks Melifonwu will come off the board several picks before that – to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 19.
“Tampa has shown plenty of interest in Melifonwu,” he said, “a player who can wear several hats in the secondary. His tape wasn’t nearly as impressive as his testing numbers, but teams can’t teach his athletic skill set.”
Pro Football Focus touted Melifonwu’s combination of size, speed and agility in the open field.
“At 6-foot-4 and 223 pounds,” they said, “Melifonwu flashes the all-around athleticism uncommonly seen for a man his size. While he is certainly capable of covering the deep third, and displays the range and ball skills to close and make plays to the boundary with consistency, he is capable of making a bigger impact at the next level the closer he is to the line of scrimmage. His physicality is on display in man coverage, where he is not afraid to punch his man off the line of scrimmage and at the break point in order to stay on his hip. This makes him an intriguing matchup option against tight ends, which the league should view as his greatest area of upside. With such a rare combination of size and athleticism as well as the ability to tackle well in space, Melifonwu is possibly the most complete safety prospect in this draft class outside of LSU’s Jamal Adams.”
This isn’t to say that Melifonwu is a flawless prospect. His instincts and aggressiveness were sometimes lacking on tape – and as a four-year starter there’s a lot of tape. You’d like to see a player with his blend of size and quickness forcing the action with more regularity and making more impact plays, but with Melifonwu there was often a lot more reacting than acting.
However, those deficiencies can be coached up. But as the old saying goes, you can’t teach speed.
Unfortunately, the same versatility that makes Melifonwu so appealing also makes his Individual Defensive Player (IDP) value for 2017 hard to peg until we now where he lands. How his new team plans to use him could have as big an impact on his fantasy prospects as his not inconsiderable talents.
If Melifonwu is selected by a team with plans to use him early and near the line of scrimmage, then he has a good shot at making an early fantasy impact in what could be a deep rookie class at the back end in that regard. If that new team has plans to use Melifonwu farther back and/or he struggles to acclimate to the NFL, not so much.
My money’s on the former, and if that proves to be the case Melifonwu will be on both my DB2 radar in redraft formats and as a late flier in dynasties.
Adams, Jabrill Peppers, Melifonwu … like I said – it’s a good year for rookie safeties.