The New England Patriots’ most athletic player only saw the field for 45 total snaps in 2018. That could change next season.
With a full offseason under his belt, defensive back Obi Melifonwu could take on a much greater role in 2019 if he impresses in training camp and the preseason.
The Patriots picked up Melifonwu after he was released from the Oakland Raiders’ injured reserve list. Melifonwu signed a two-year contract with the Patriots but appeared in just two games, playing 20 defensive snaps and 25 more on special teams. He recorded three tackles. The Grafton, Mass.-native also played three special teams snaps in the Patriots’ AFC Championship Game win over the Kansas City Chiefs. He had one tackle in that playoff performance.
Melifonwu was selected by the Raiders in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft out of UConn. He appeared in just five games as a rookie, recording six tackles, before being placed on injured reserve with a hip ailment.
Though he hasn’t produced much in the NFL to this point, Melifonwu still has upside based on his physical gifts. Melifonwu is 6-foot-4, 224 pounds and ran a 4.40-second 40-yard dash with a 44-inch vertical leap, 11-foot, 8-inch broad jump, 4.30-second short shuttle, 7.07-second 3-cone and 17 bench-press reps of 225 pounds during pre-draft testing two years ago.
For a defensive back, Melifonwu rated in the 99th percentile for broad jump, 98th percentile for height, weight and vertical jump and 89th percentile for the 40-yard dash.
Melifonwu was a solid run defender in college, piling up 20 run stops on 398 run snaps in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus. He missed just nine tackles in 2016, ranking 10th among safeties in tackle efficiency rate. He let up 25 catches on 35 targets for 318 yards with three touchdowns and four interceptions.
With his combination of size and athleticism, some coaches have been tempted to put Melifonwu at cornerback. He played there in college and as a rookie with the Raiders. He’d likely fit at cornerback in a Cover-3 system similar to the one the Seattle Seahawks and Los Angeles Chargers run, but he’s better suited at safety in the Patriots’ defense.
Ideally, Melifonwu could play a role similar to the one Patrick Chung mans, covering tight ends and playing a hybrid-linebacker role. Melifonwu can’t cover the slot like Chung, but he’s bigger and a more explosive athlete.
Chung and third safety Duron Harmon are signed through 2020 while starting free safety Devin McCourty announced Thursday he’s returning to the Patriots in 2019, the final year on his contract.
So, Melifonwu doesn’t have a direct path to a starring role in the Patriots’ defense, but if he can impress this summer, Melifonwu could become a role player in 2019. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Patriots bring in some young competition at the safety position, however. Patriots cornerbacks Jonathan Jones, a restricted free agent, and Duke Dawson also have potential at the safety position. Melifonwu isn’t guaranteed a spot on the Patriots next season, but his athleticism will always give him intriguing upside.