It’s not every day a team in the NFL comes across a physical specimen such as Oakland Raiders rookie safety Obi Melifonwu
Melifonwu was taken in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft, this pick had Raider Nation jumping for joy. Finally, a safety with range at 6’4″ and 4.40 speed, the ultimate freak that was to be a key contributor to the Raiders defense.
Unfortunately, things have gotten to a rough start and Raider Nation is asking the question, “Where In The World Is Obi?
Once training camp commenced there was much buzz about Obi, his physical nature and how he could be a replacement to veteran Reggie Nelson, though this turned out to be premature.
A tandem of Joseph and Melifonwu had fans drooling and comparing the two similar to what the Seattle Seahawks have in Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor. Coming from the University of Connecticut, Obi was praised for his elite athleticism as he impressed at the NFL combine with a 44 inch vertical, and 4.40 40 yard dash.
Once preseason got underway Obi hit a bit of a snag. In the third preseason game, Melifonwu played 22 snaps on defense against the Dallas Cowboys and was later reported after the game that he had suffered a significant knee injury. This caused the rookie to undergo surgery and be placed on IR where he would miss the first eight weeks of the season.
After missing the first eight weeks of the season, Melifonwu was eligible to practice and would return to make his debut on Sunday Night Football in Week 9 against the Miami Dolphins. He played seven snaps and recorded two solo tackles and one assist. He also did a solid job in coverage particularly against Julius Thomas, the tight end for the Miami Dolphins.
This debut was a step in the right direction and had Raider Nation eager to see what he could do against the hated New England Patriots.
Meltdown In Mexico City
After a solid debut, Melifonwu would get a shot at more snaps. The Raiders were hurting at the cornerback position due to injuries to starting cornerback David Amerson and back up cornerback Antonio Hamilton. The Raiders made a desperate (and silly) move to place the rookie at corner to make up for those injuries.
He had limited experience at corner in college but since he had the athleticism, head coach Jack Del Rio and the coaching staff felt comfortable with putting him in there against the Patriots and boy did he struggle.
Since the very get-go of the game, you could tell Obi was in for a long day. Mexico City is at an altitude of 7,382 feet above sea level which makes it harder for players running at high speeds to take in oxygen. To put this in perspective the Denver Broncos play at an altitude of 5,280 feet above sea level. This is about a 72% increase in altitude, so putting a rookie safety at corner under these conditions was a big factor in his poor performance.
In the few first drives of the game, Melifonwu was gassed. With the cameras on him during the game, everyone could see him tapping his helmet and motioning to the sideline saying the words: “I can’t breathe”.
To top this off he was burnt by Patriots wide receiver Brandin Cooks on a 64-yard touchdown. The speedy receiver was able to get past him on a go route and cruise right into the end zone. It didn’t help that Nelson was on the other side of the field (no idea why he was) which basically put Obi in a big predicament. The Raiders were thrashed 33-8, After the game, coach Del Rio acknowledged that this was a desperation move and that maybe it wasn’t the best thing to do the rookie coming back from injury.
“It was probably asking a little too much. But we are going to roll with those guys — we rolled with our guys in the secondary tonight, and we’re going to do that. We’ve got to do that until somebody starts playing well enough to stay in there full time.” – Jack Del Rio, Oakland Raiders Head Coach
Since then Melifonwu has only played one snap on defense the last two weeks. In my opinion, though, this isn’t all on the rookie. Part of the duties of any coaching staff is to put your players in the best spots to win. It’s obvious they did not do that with Melifonwu in Mexico City.
Since that disaster, John Pagano has taken over the defense and has shown that he has the overall experience and knowledge of the game to put guys in the right spots to succeed. Just look at Bruce Irvin who had only seven sacks in 16 games under Ken Norton Jr. in 2016. Now in 2017, Irvin has 5.5 sacks and three of those have come in the last two weeks under Pagano.
Melifonwu is a willing tackler and can cover tight ends, in fact, Melifonwu would’ve showcased his coverage skills against rookie tight end Evan Engram last week when the Raiders played the New York Giants but the coaching staff elected not to and he went off for 99 receiving yards and a touchdown.
This goes to show that Del Rio is not maximizing the talent on this roster and one can only hope he sees that Obi can be an integral part of this defense. Until then, Raider Nation will continue to ask: “Where In The World Is Obi?”.