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What the Lions are getting in CB Ifeatu Melifonwu

Lions add another elite athlete to the cornerbacks room

Syracuse v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions capped off Day 2 of the 2021 NFL draft by drafting their third defensive player in as many picks—selecting cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu with pick No. 101 overall.

Adding an outside corner at this stage was not a pressing need—though it was very much a long-term one—but Lions general manager Brad Holmes trusted his board and took the player they thought should have been drafted much sooner.

“I can say that was huge for Iffy (Ifeatu Melifonwu), you know at our last pick is that really trusting our board,” Holmes told the Detroit media late Friday night. “He was actually standing out, I wouldn’t say like a sore thumb, but he was standing out significantly. So, from a value standpoint, from the cream of the position, let’s just go and just trust our board, trust the process, all the work that we put in, and really feel good about the value you get.”

Melifonwu, the younger brother of 49ers safety Obi, is an elite athlete who started at outside corner for Syracuse the past two seasons. At 6-foot-2 12 and 205 pounds, Melifonwu’s overall athleticism is sensational—he earned one of the highest RAS scores at the position in this class.

Melifonwu’s combination of height, speed, and explosion are elite, and ideal for an outside corner. His agility numbers match up with his game, meaning he’s not shifty enough to lineup with traditional slot receivers, but he could situationally be a matchup player against big-bodied players who line up in the slot.

Translation: Based purely on his athletic profile, he’s likely going to play outside the majority of the time.

Stylistically, Melifonwu fits the mold of a traditional press corner who is big enough to be physical at the line but fast enough to turn and run with receivers. But it wasn't his ability to play press-man that caught Holmes’ eye.

“How Iffy (Melifonwu) grew on me in the process is his ability to actually play in off-coverage and actually be able to maneuver, show quickness in a short area, in zone and off-coverage, which usually guys that long and that big aren’t able to do,” Holmes said.

Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn is expected to bring over a coverage scheme similar to the one run during his time with the New Orleans Saints and that means corners need to be able to play a significant amount of man coverage, while also holding their own in Cover-2, Cover-3, and Quarters zone concepts.

Melifonwu’s “movement skills in space” affords him the ability to play in these different coverage concepts but how far will this allow him to expand his roles?

“You know what, I’ll leave that up to A.G.—Aaron Glenn—and Aubrey Pleasant (defensive backs coach),” Holmes continued. “Personally, I do think that he has versatility to do everything. I think he has versatility to play outside, to play back deep, and even to play inside in the matchup on big guys. That versatility, he has. But I’ll leave that up to A.G. in terms of where he feels like best fits.”

Expect the Lions to take it slow with Melifonwu’s development since there is no need to rush him with Jeff Okudah, Amani Oruwariye, and Quinton Dunbar in the mix. Transitioning to the NFL is extraordinarily challenging for rookie corners, and the Lions will likely have him focus on learning one spot before expanding his positional range.

Will he challenge for a starting role in 2021? Probably not. But could he earn a starting job in 2022? Well, that’s where things get interesting.

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