On paper, Obi Melifonwu fits the Paul Guenther bill. Certainly, the Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator did a double take when he saw the second round pick up close and personal.
For, at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds, the 24-year-old Melifonwu had to remind Guenther of George Iloka. Iloka, a 6-4, 225-pound free safety who roamed the defensive backfield during Guenther’s stint dictating the Cincinnati Bengals defense.
In Melifonwu, Guenther sees a faster — albeit inexperienced — version of Iloka. The latter was a fifth-round pick that emerged as the Bengals’ rover at safety and improved on a year-to-year basis both in coverage and against the run. Based off collegiate film, Melifonwu is a cover guy who needs to elevate his tackling ability. Judgment based off NFL film is a difficult proposition, however.
Plucked from Connecticut with the 56th overall pick, Melifonwu was dubbed as a freakish talent. Blessed with elite size and speed and the game tape to back up his prospects as a cover man at the next level. Drafted to be the tight end eraser, the only thing that vanished was Melifonwu’s rookie season as knee surgery truncated his offseason and hip surgery ended his year.
Perhaps a victim of former head coach Jack Del Rio’s injury management — playing players before they were truly healed — and player placement, Melifonwu finished with seven total tackles and had a horrendous showing as an outside cornerback in altitude against the New England Patriots in Mexico City. That left little to nothing for new head coach Jon Gruden and his staff to evaluate.
“There’s a lot of unknown right now. We need [Gareon] Conley to come back and be a corner for us,” Gruden said. “Jihad Ward and Obi Melifonwu, these are second-round draft choices. Have not seen them on tape very much. We need to see where they are, fast.”
This is perhaps an indication of why the Raiders added versatile veteran Marcus Gilchrist in free agency. The Raiders traded Ward to Dallas for wide receiver Ryan Switzer.
That leaves the Raiders staff pondering what the first- and second-round defensive backs have to offer. Not to mention, both are still on the mend. Conley from a shin injury that wiped out most of his year.
“I think so,” Coach Gruden said when asked about Conley and Melifonwu. “They participated in the morning session, the walkthrough. They did some of the individual work this afternoon. They’re real close, but for obvious reasons, we’re being careful with them this early in the process.”
It is imperative Melifonwu return with a clean bill of health. He needs to go full bore in offseason camps. The Raiders gave him opportunity to develop. Plus, play for a coach who is adept at using a player of his size. Moreover, an ascendance to the starting role allows Oakland to be move Karl Joseph to his proper spot at free safety, freeing up Melifonwu to shadow tight ends as a strong safety.
Nevertheless, the warning already exists. The team shipped Ward based off the subpar tenure as a Raider. If Melifonwu does not show dedication, he too could leave Oakland.
Gruden is in win-now mode, not wait-and-see mode.