Before there was Jeremy Chinn, Kyle Dugger, and even the eighth overall pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, Isaiah Simmons, there was Obi Melifonwu; the original height-weight-speed hybrid defensive back with Olympics-esque athleticism but no traditional NFL position.
Initially drafted with the 56th overall pick by the Oakland Raiders, Melifonwu dazzled onlookers at the 2017 NFL Combine with a near-record-breaking performance, literally, recording the second-best broad and long jump in modern draft history, falling just behind his ex-UConn teammate Byron Jones and Gerald Sensabaugh in each respective category.
With experience playing both cornerback and safety during his time with the Huskies, surely a creative defensive coordinator would have themselves a freakish athlete somewhere in their secondary for years to come… right?
Yeah, not so much.
Since signing his initial contract with the then-Oakland Raiders, Melifonwu has appeared in nine games with one start. He’s been placed on IR three times, cut three times, and is now on his fourth team heading into his fifth professional season.
Could the Philadelphia Eagles be the team to finally find a role for Obi Melifonwu? Only time will tell, but after initially impressing the team at their Rookie Camp earlier this year, the 6-foot-4, 224-pound
cornerback safety linebacker player will have a chance to prove his worth yet again.
Can the Philadelphia Eagles find a role for Obi Melifonwu this fall?
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Obi Melifonwu is the only player in the NFL who runs a 4.4 40 with a 44-inch vertical and 141-inch broad jump at 6-foot-4, 224 pounds.
Is that a clunky sentence with a ton of qualifiers? Yes, yes it is, but when you are so gosh darn unique physically, it’s hard to convey it in a traditional, clean way.
Huh, almost like how much trouble NFL teams have had with finding a role for Melifonwu on the field? Funny how that worked out.
In college, Melifonwu was largely deployed as a height-weight-speed matchup player, covering receivers, tight ends, and even the occasional running back while splitting his time between man and zone responsibilities.
And statistically speaking, Melifonwu shined in that role.
In four years of action with the Huskies, Melifonwu recorded 349 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, eight picks, 16 passes defensed, and a pair of forced fumbles in 48 games of action, all the while earning All-Conference honors for his efforts as a senior.
Granted, Melifonwu accomplished said feats while playing against likes of Temple, UCF, and Cincinnati week-in and week-out, and actually struggled against teams like Maryland, Michigan, and Rutgers early in his career but a strong showing at the Senior Bowl helped to mitigate any initial concerns about how his game would translate to the NFL level… at least from a scouting perspective.
When actually healthy and on the field, Melifonwu struggled to find a positional home and a way to consistently contribute to his team, which is probably because teams aren’t used to having a 6-foot-4 defensive back who can go sideline-to-sideline and attack the backfield as run support.
Is that a problem? For Melifonwu, that answer would be yes. He’s not quite big enough to be a full-time weakside linebacker and isn’t quite sticky enough to be a Malcolm Jenkins-esque swiss army knife coverage player.
Outside cornerback? Heavens no, that would be Obi’s younger brother Ifeatu Melifonwu.
No, for the elder Melifonwu to actually stick around at that NFL level, teams have to stop thinking about what he can’t do – or trying to put his game into a traditional box – and instead take advantage of his unique size, speed, and explosivity.
Even if Melifonwu never becomes more than a bottom-of-the-roster special teamer, as right now, he’s maybe competing for the Philadelphia Eagles’ fifth safety spot alongside 2020 UDFA Grayland Arnold, why not throw him on special teams, point at the return man, and just say “go?”
From Duke Riley to Kamu Grugier-Hill, and even the OG ace of the post-Andy Reid-era, Chris Maragos, a player can have a long and lucrative NFL career as a special teams, um, specialist, even if it takes a certain type of person to accept that role.
As a former second-round pick, I imagine Melifonwu will be pushing his new teammates for playing time on the defensive end of the field – maybe even as a dime linebacker – but if that just isn’t in the cards and the 27-year-old is willing to do whatever it takes to continue his career, kicking it full time to the third side of the ball might just be the best way to see the field early and often this fall.
I don’t know about you, but I’d be terrified to see Obi flying off the edge running at me full speed on a punt return.
As the NFL transitions further and further away from the boxed-in rigidity of old to a new world of positional versatility, height-weight-speed matchup nightmares will become more and more valuable with each passing season if they can wear a lot of hats. Is Obi Melifonwu the sort of difference-makers who can take the court at the NovaCare Center this summer and completely transform their defensive scheme once and for all? No, probably not, but he could be the Philadelphia Eagles’ answer to Jayron Kearse, who was a subpackage player and special teams ace with the Minnesota Vikings during his time with the team. That’d be a nice get.