Obi Melifonwu can cover ground quickly. That was evident Friday during the only Raiders rookie minicamp practice open to the media, when the second-round safety stood out in coverage.
Great range is a trait expected of someone with 4.4 speed and strides from long 6-foot-4 frame. Melifonwu has it. There’s no denying that.
He isn’t just a cover man. He can hit, and is rarely engaged in a disadvantageous matchup.
The Raiders want to use his tools to great effect, and will spend the offseason program determining how to use him best.
“He’s very gifted. He has a good head on his shoulders,” Raiders head coach Jack Del Rio said. “He comes in, and he’s just trying to soak up our system right now. Athletically, he’s very blessed. He has height, weight and speed that you look for. Athleticism, changing direction and then he’ll come up and hit you. We like the tape. We think he’s a good football player and we’re happy to start working with him.”
Melifonwu is a versatile chess piece that can be moved around the board a bit. He primarily played strong safety at Connecticut, but has experience covering deep at free safety. Many believe he can be a safety/linebacker hybrid in sub packages, with the tools required to cover running backs and tight ends.
Covering those positions has been a sore spot in recent years, one the Raiders hope Melifonwu can remedy right away. He joins a position group featuring Pro Bowler Reggie Nelson and 2016 first-round pick Karl Joseph, but the Raiders can get creative with his use even if the aforementioned players retain starting spots.
Melifonwu knows he won’t earn a role on athleticism alone. He must learn the Raiders defensive scheme and his role within it, an important task at Raiders minicamp and after joining the veterans for the offseason program.
“I think at this next level, as a young guy coming in, the quicker you can learn the playbook and the scheme, the quicker you can get on the field and the faster you can play,” Melifonwu said. “Right now I’m just focused on learning the playbook and focused on what I can do to help the team.”
The Raiders spent draft capital trying to improve pass defense in the present and future, using a second-round pick on Melifonwu and a first-rounder on former Ohio State cornerback Gareon Conley.
Conley will compete for a starting spot but could play slot cornerback right away and Melifonwu could see significant snaps, meaning two rookies might play important roles in this pass defense.
That point isn’t lost on this highly-touted pair, who were brought together during the Raiders rookie minicamp.
“He’s actually my roommate,” Melifonwu said. “He’s a cool guy, a guy that loves football. We talked a little bit about it yesterday. We’re really excited to play together.”