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2023 Detroit Lions roster preview: Has Ifeatu Melifonwu found his niche?

After a tumultuous two seasons, has Detroit Lions’ 2021 third-round pick Ifeatu Melifonwu finally found his role with the team?

Detroit Lions v Seattle Seahawks Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

As the Detroit Lions 2021 draft class enters their third year, players are starting to establish themselves as either ones who will stick around and be foundational pieces or someone who the Lions will try to upgrade from in the near future.

One of the players who still finds themselves between those two ends of the spectrum is cornerback-turned-safety Ifeatu Melifonwu. Entering 2023, we still have not seen much of the Lions former third-round pick, but he may be settling into a role in Detroit.

Let’s take a closer look in our 2023 Detroit Lions roster preview.

Previous roster previews: Aidan Hutchinson, Jameson Williams, Josh Paschal, Kerby Joseph, James Mitchell, Malcolm Rodriguez, James Houston, Chase Lucas, Obinna Eze, Greg Bell, Penei Sewell, Levi Onwuzurike, Alim McNeill

Ifeatu Melifonwu

Expectations heading into 2022

It’s never a good sign when a team—just a single year into your career—decides they want you to change positions. That’s what Melifonwu had to deal with heading into training camp of his second season. After a quiet (and injury-filled) rookie season spent as a depth corner, Melifonwu was shifted to be a safety last year.

It wasn’t a completely unnatural move for Melifonwu. His size and length make him look like a natural safety, but he just didn’t have the experience at the position. Still, early in training camp, he was feeling pretty optimistic about the move.

“The transition has actually been smoother—maybe than I thought it would be,” he said back in August 2022.

That said, with the free agency addition of DeShon Elliott and the drafting of third-round pick Kerby Joseph, Melifonwu was going to have to fight for a significant role on defense.

Actual role in 2022

10 games (1 start): 98 defensive snaps played (8.6%) — 81 special teams snaps (18.0%)
Stats: 14 tackles, 1 TFL, 2 passes defended. 0.5 sacks
PFF defensive grade: 54.6 (107th among 126 safeties with at least 90 snaps)
PFF run defense grade: 53.9 (96th of 127)
PFF coverage grade: 53.7 (104th of 127)
PFF pass rush grade: 75.8 (14th of 127) — Note: Only had 3 pass rushing snaps

Unfortunately for Melifonwu, he ended up missing valuable training camp time due to a hamstring injury suffered in the Ford Field scrimmage last August. That injury rolled over into the regular season, causing him to miss the first month of the season.

By the time he had returned, the Lions had lost starting safety Tracy Walker to a season-ending injury, but they had handed the reigns over to Joseph—a position he would not relinquish for the rest of the season.

So Melifonwu mostly played as a special teamer for the season, but even then, the injury bug hit him again. He missed another month due to an ankle injury.

He finally got his opportunity for some defensive playing time late in the season. As Elliott dealt with a shoulder injury, Melifonwu got his first start against the Carolina Panthers. Even though he tallied eight tackles in the game, it was an extremely tough safety debut for Melifonwu, as he did not look like he was grasping his responsibilities well.

That said, he rebounded quite nicely the next week against the Chicago Bears, earning an 82.2 PFF grade, tallying a sack, and not allowing a single completion, per PFF.

“I thought he answered the bell,” Dan Campbell said after the Bears game. “I thought he came in. I think that some of the things that he was asked to do was a little different than last week, just the nature of the opponent. However, I did, I thought he answered the bell. I thought he was better. I thought he tried to play more aggressive. He had a pretty big fourth-down stop. That was good to see, so yeah, it was encouraging.”

When Elliott returned to a starting role in the finale, Melifonwu went back to his special teams role, which had grown to a point where he was playing on all four units.

Outlook for 2023

Melifonwu’s second season didn’t go as planned, but he’s now entering training camp with something he didn’t have last year: experience.

“I’m way more comfortable than last year,” Melifonwu said during minicamp. “Last year, everything was new. It was just—I had never played safety before, so it was just a big transition. The rotations and fitting in the gaps. I feel like, now, I’m thinking less because I have it down. I’m more comfortable this year.”

Detroit revamped their secondary this offseason, but the safety position remains a little thin. Sure, players like C.J. Gardner-Johnson and Brian Branch could play that position in a pinch, but the Lions would likely prefer to keep both of those players at nickel for the majority of their snaps.

That leaves Melifonwu with an opportunity to not only make the team but carve out a defensive role. He’s still behind Joseph and Walker on the depth chart, but with Walker still working his way back from an Achilles, Melifonwu was getting some first-team reps in spring practices.

This time is absolutely critical for Melifonwu, who—after missing much of 2022 training camp, all of the preseason and a couple months of the regular season—is still very much learning the position.

“The injuries hurt him, not being able to get the reps, the repetitions, added time on task,” Campbell said. “So, this is one of the few times that we’ve had him for a significant amount of time, consistently, consecutively, and so that in itself is paying dividends right now. So we see growth, he is. He’s coming along. And look here’s the thing, Iffy’s a pretty smart player, he really is, like he gets it. He just needs time. He needs time on task, he needs reps, like a lot of young guys do.”

In addition to that, this regime has some trust in Melifonwu to back up the cornerback position in a pinch. That versatility—plus last year’s special teams experience—gives him an edge to make the final roster and maybe even find his way into a defensive role at some point in 2023.

That may not be where the Lions were hoping Melifonwu would be in Year 3 of his career when they drafted him in the third round, but depth in the secondary is critical. And for Melifonwu, he may have expanded his arsenal of talents wide enough to make himself indispensable.

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