For the second time in three years a relatively unknown safety from the University of Connecticut, of all places, has captured the imagination of general managers, absolutely maximized the combine/pro day and team visit process and is now poised to fare better in the NFL Draft than most anyone would have assumed three months ago.
Obi Melifonwu is arguably the best athlete in the entire 2017 NFL Draft. His metrics are world class across the board, and the versatile defensive back is less than a week away from cashing in on all of his hard work preparing for the most grueling and lengthy job interview of his life. He’s about to accomplish something strikingly similar to what former college teammate Byron Jones, another freakishly athletic safety, achieved just two Aprils ago, when Jones went to the Dallas Cowboys with the 27th overall pick. Melifonwu appears on the cusp of becoming just the third player in the history of the UConn program to be taken in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Melifonwu, 23, is hardly just a workout warrior. He’s was a four-year starter for the Huskies who can toggle between free safety and strong safety; a tackling machine who loves to play physically and can also hunt for the football it the air. But it’s impossible to ignore the ridiculous athletic feats throughout the lead up to the draft that have distanced him from all but the truly elite prospects in the country. From the combine on he has completely wowed the scouting community with his somewhat incomparable combination of size, height, weight, speed, quickness and leaping ability, morphing the high-end speed of a top corner (4.40 in the 40) with the thumping frame of a linebacker (6-foot-4, 224 pounds).
That alone will get you noticed — big time — and when coupled with on-field production (albeit in a lesser football conference), a dogged competitiveness, a willingness to be coached and an engaging and winning personality you have the makings of a first-round talent. Teams I’ve talked to expect him to be the third safety selected in an unusually deep class of them — behind only Jamal Adams of LSU and Malik Hooker of Ohio State (both football powerhouses) — with his versatility and promise too bountiful to ignore, drawing comparisons in some corridors to Seattle All-Pro safety Kam Chancellor.
“I’ve always had that goal (of going in the first round) in mind,” Melifonwu told me with his hectic travel schedule of NFL visits finally winding down, “but at the same time I understood that this is a business and a lot of decisions are based on that, and I’m not a GM or a head coach and those decisions aren’t in my control. So, I always had the mindset that I can go in the first round, and I have first round potential and ability, but those are things I can’t focus on, because those are things I can’t control.”
What the safety could control was how hard he worked, how diligent he was with his positional drills and the mechanics and technique involved with the broad jump and vertical jump and 40-yard dash. And much like Jones, who posted a world-record length in the broad jump at the combine to catapult up draft boards, Melifonwu put on an Olympic decathlon-esque performance in Indianapolis back in February to boost his stock.
Melifonwu ran what would have been the fifth-best time among all cornerbacks — think maybe 6-foot, 195 pounds — but did it carrying 224 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame. Only Jones posted a better broad jump length at the combine dating back to 2003 and Melifonwu’s vertical of 44-inches was the best of any combine participant since 2006.
“Going into the combine I was kind of nervous, actually,” Melifonwu said, “but having Yo (trainer Yo Murphy) in my corner, I’ve never had someone that pushed me as hard as he did and believed in me like he did. He really gave me a sense of calmness. He was there for me through the whole thing. If I needed something, he would run and get it. He really did a great job of preparing me for the combine and preparing me while I was at the combine.”
Much of the credit for the astounding combine showing obviously goes to Melifonwu, and his dedication to the process, obviously. He believes he gained a specific advantage from some of the advanced technology available him at the APSI Training complex in Tampa, where Murphy worked with him. He trained heavily with Athos, a wearable technology app that measures the body’s biosignals during workouts and assesses how to buttress specific muscle groups and areas moving forward.
“I feel like that is what gave me the most edge in training,” Melifonwu said.
“Not only did we get probably the best athlete that has walked through our doors this year,” Murphy said of Melifonwu, “but we got a guy with the mental game that really helped him and enabled him to hit those (combine) numbers. You can have all of that inside of you, but if don’t really have the trust and really the strength, mentally, to go get it, it just sits inside of you. He, explosively, is ridiculous. But he’s got that mental game to go with it. He’s a kid that knows who he is. He’s comfortable with who he is. When he gets alone, he doesn’t fault or fail; he’s good with himself. It’s kind of a package that we’ve never seen.”
Melifonwu is the kind of uber-motivated kid Murphy actually had to hold back at times. Literally. Even after running his superb 40 time at the combine, Murphy would find him at the gym working on starts with the draft prospects who didn’t fare well in Indy. Melifonwu wanted to try to improve on his 40 at his pro day — despite there being no need to do so and it not making much sense to try to.
“He told me I know I can run a 4.3 at my pro day and I was like, man, if you don’t get out of there,” Murphy said. “I wasn’t shocked by how he ran or by his jumps.”
That mindset — a natural zeal to yearn for progress when already at a pinnacle — has scouts salivating as much as the pure numbers do.
“We love him,” said one NFL coach. “We had him in our building and he is a very impressive kid. We think he could play corner for us — and we told him that — and if that doesn’t work out we know he could play safety. This draft, from like 16-46, is loaded with gifted defensive backs and he stand out.”
This is an easy kid to like spending even just a little time around him — very confident without being cocky, smart, engaging, well-mannered, enthusiastic — and while he is certainly raw in some regards and has some coverage issues to work on, he believes he has impressed teams with his football intellect as they put him on the board and asked him to diagnose various schemes.
“I feel like I have a great football IQ,” he said. “So really there are no issues with that, and I really enjoyed every team that worked with me and put me on the board.”
The reality is, this is the emergence of a perfect skill set at the perfect time. The passing game continues to dominate the NFL landscape and the proliferation of fast, hulking tight ends is only continuing. It’s no surprise that this draft is deepest at that position — and probably safety, too — and this is one safety who has the size and weight to bang with those massive pass catchers and who can run with them as well.
Some clubs believe in a Cover-3 scheme (like Seattle), Melifonwu could even function as a corner in sub packages, and he’s embracing the idea of going up against guys like Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham on Sundays.
“That’s one aspect I bring to the table in terms of safeties in this draft — my length and size and seed and coverage ability,” he said. “I think that allows me to be a match up versus tight ends, and nowadays the NFL is all about match ups.”
Indeed. With that in mind, there is no shortage of potential landing spots for Melifonwu. His strike zone probably starts forming around pick 17 (Washington’s former GM, Scot McCloughan was high on the safety, for what it’s worth) and runs through the Saints with the last pick in the top round. If Adams and Hooker both go in the top 10 picks, it only increases the odds of more safeties being selected next Thursday.
Tampa Bay, Houston, Seattle, Dallas, Green Bay and Pittsburgh could all select a defensive back in between the 17th and 32nd picks, with the Cowboys and Seahawks among the teams doing the most ardent work on safeties and corners.
It’s not at all unlike what Jones — who was viewed as a corner who would play safety at the pro level — went through two years ago. The former teammates haven’t chatted in a few weeks but have remained close through the process and will soon be seeing a lot more of one another in the fall no matter when Melifonwu lands.
“Throughout the combine process I talked to him quite a bit to find out ins and outs,” Melifonwu said of Jones. “And the one thing I really got from him is that now it’s really a job and you have to be a professional and come in with the mindset of getting better every day and loving the game of football and the sky is the limit. My ability can take me far I just need to put in the wok and keep level headed and stay on the right path.”
So far, so good, with that. To say the least.