The Detroit Lions continued to trust their own board with their second third-round selection of Syracuse cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu. Cornerback wasn’t a huge position of need at this point in the draft, but the theme of Day 2 was simply getting defensive talent with athletic traits, and Melifonwu certainly fits that bill.
Let’s break down if this was the right pick for the Lions.
The first thing that jumps out about Melifonwu is his athletic profile. At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, he’s got the long and tall build of trendy outside cornerbacks. However, he moves like the speedy corners necessary to keep up with shifty receivers. Put it all together, and you’ve got a guy with elite athletic traits:
Ifeatu Melifonwu was drafted with pick 101 of round 3 in the 2021 draft class. He scored a 9.69 RAS out of a possible 10.00. This ranked 56 out of 1790 CB from 1987 to 2021. https://t.co/RQB3GDGWSS #RAS #Lions pic.twitter.com/UE3SPjJW1z— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) May 1, 2021
The play hasn’t quite caught up to the athletic profile yet, however. He doesn’t play overly physical despite his towering height, and he can look hesitant at times, taking away from his elite quickness.
His production at college was all over the place:
Melifonwu had 7 Forced Incompletions (T-10th in FBS) but also had 6 Penalties (4th)— PFF DET Lions (@PFF_Lions) May 1, 2021
He also had 10 Defensive Stops in Coverage (T-3rd) while having 5 Missed Tackles (T-5th)
The definition of a roller-coaster type of player
However, Melifonwu has played several different types of schemes at Syracuse, which breaks the mold of a “press cornerback” that he’s sometimes mislabeled. General manager Brad Holmes specifically said that it was Melifonwu’s ability to play off-coverage that really caught his attention on Friday night.
“How ‘Iffy’ 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.
Talent grade: C+
Per Holmes, Melifonwu stuck out for Detroit because his value was clear and above the rest of the players still on the board at 101. A look around some national media experts seems to agree that this is far lower than many expected Melifonwu to go.
Dane Brugler: 57th overall prospect
PFF: 2nd-3rd round grade
The biggest tell that this was an extreme value pick is comparing where he went (101) to Arif Hasan’s consensus big board, which averages 70 different big boards into one collective board. That board has Melifonwu as the 56th-best prospect in this year’s class. In other words, this is fantastic value.
Value grade: A+
This offseason, the Lions coaching staff talked up their young secondary. With Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye set to start, and hopefully progress, under new defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn—who happens to be a former NFL Pro Bowl defensive back—cornerback wasn’t atop the team’s needs list. Throw in a free agency flier on Quinton Dunbar—who was one of the best cornerbacks just a couple of years ago—and this was potentially a “luxury” pick for a team with plenty of other needs.
Still, it isn’t clear what the Lions have at cornerback in terms of a long-term need. Dunbar could bounce back in a big way, but he also signed on a dirt-cheap deal for a reason. Both Okudah and Oruwariye struggled mightily in 2020, and there’s no guarantee they progress, even with an improved coaching staff. Not every young player’s trajectory is up.
There’s some talk that Melifonwu could play safety or some in the nickel—and Holmes suggested that was a possibility—but I’m not buying it. The Lions went pure best player available here.
Need grade: D
When you’re in a rebuild, I have absolutely no problem sticking to your big board and simply taking the best player available. This team’s No. 1 need is talent, and the Lions just snagged a guy at the tail-end of the third round that most expected to go in Round 2. Fans will gripe that some of the team’s most pressing needs are being avoided, but we’re talking about the 2021 club. You do not draft for immediate need, you play the long-term game in the draft. And while many were likely hoping the duo of Okudah-Oruwariye were the outside corners for the future, there is little to suggest they’ll be capable of that on the field just yet.
Overall grade: B+
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