If he wasn’t already, Connecticut safety Obi Melifonwu became a household name after his stellar performance at this year’s NFL Combine. At a towering 6-foot-3 (and some change), 224 pounds, Melifonwu shattered the broad jump record for all safeties—not including Byron Jones, who was a cornerback—since 1999 with a 141-inch jump and only trails Gerald Sensabaugh in the vertical jump (46 inches) with an impressive 44 inch vert.
To put things into perspective, here are some number comparisons:
Obi Melifonwu at combine:— NFL Research (@NFLResearch) March 6, 2017
- Taller than Larry Fitzgerald
- Quicker than Darren Sproles
- Faster than Devin Hester
- Jumps higher than OBJ pic.twitter.com/y230S04CUQ
That’s right, Obi is faster than speedster Devin Hester in his prime, more explosive than one of the quickest running backs in the league and can sky higher than sea captain, Odell Beckham Jr. That’s all fine and dandy, but can he play football? The short answer? Yes. The long answer? Well, that’s what I’m here to tell you.
Is he a safety, linebacker or a cornerback?
Many of you are already clamoring for the Detroit Lions to pick Melifonwu at safety in the first round. I think that’s a fantastic idea, but I believe he’d be an even better cornerback.
For such a tall defensive back, Melifonwu flips his hips as well as anybody and is extremely smooth and fluid with his movements. Take this rep for example during Senior Bowl practice:
Here, Melifonwu does an outstanding job of staying in the receiver’s hip pocket, displays great ankle flexion and turns his head at the right moment to potentially make a play on the ball.
Melifonwu’s closing speed when shortening the gap in the passing game, as well as attacking downhill in the run game, is top notch. He has the range to play free safety, the aggressive mentality and tackling efficiency to play in the box as a strong safety or linebacker, and the size and athleticism to cover tight ends in the slot. You can essentially get away with playing Melifonwu anywhere on defense.
Counter argument for playing as a box safety/linebacker
Despite having the natural traits to play CB, Melifonwu is more experienced as a safety, and was moved to the position by his coaches his freshman year after entering as a CB. He’s a sensational run defender that hits like a ton of bricks in the open field. According to Pro Football Focus, Melifonwu finished 2016 as the ninth-best run defender among all safeties and was 17th in tackling efficiency.
Melifonwu’s closing speed is something else, as we see him race downhill and meet the ball carrier for no gain. It’s fairly rare where you see him come in contact with someone and have them escape his grasp.
No prospect is ever perfect, and in Obi Melifonwu’s case, he often lacks the ability to diagnose plays quickly in front of him, which is why I don’t believe his best position is going to be at safety or linebacker in the NFL.
In the play above, Melifonwu appears ready for the in-line tight end to come after him, but once that doesn’t happen, he looks like a deer caught in the headlights and may have even lost sight of where the ball was at the mesh point. The result is an easy six points given up as Marlon Mack runs by him for the touchdown.
Another example comes during a game against Houston last year. On first-and-10, the Cougars call a designed bubble screen, and although the QB has already turned his body and let go of the ball, Melifonwu is still drifting backwards for at least a full second before heading downhill to meet the ball carrier, leaving plenty of room along the sideline and eventually misses the tackle.
By no means am I saying that Melifonwu doesn’t have what it takes to play the safety or linebacker position, but if you want to maximize his physical traits and potential, then you’re better off moving him to CB.
Player Comparison: Hercules
After such an impressive showing at the Combine, it wouldn’t surprise me if Obi Melifonwu were to be selected prior to the Lions 21st overall pick. We’ve seen teams draft almost solely based on freakish athleticism before, and we don’t have to go that far back as an example (see: Byron Jones).
Melifonwu is an even better prospect than Jones, and has the versatility to play multiple positions across the secondary, as well as linebacker in certain situations. No matter what, Melifonwu is raw and unpolished, but with his elite athletic ability and body type, I believe his upside is at its highest as an outside cornerback, with the potential to become a legitimate physical shut-down CB in the NFL.