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Obi Melifonwu has to prove he’s more than just a freak athlete after being drafted by Raiders

The UConn safety is arguably the draft’s best athlete. Can he translate that talent to the big leagues?

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NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

With one explosive workout, Obi Melifonwu went from mid-round prospect to first-round pick. Now the UConn standout will have to prove his terrific combine numbers will translate to a prolific NFL career for the Oakland Raiders, who drafted him with the 56th pick in 2017.

Melifonwu turned heads when he tested out as one of this year’s most electrifying athletes back in March. The 6’4 safety posted the second-best broad jump of all time (11’9), cleared an insane 44 inches with his vertical leap, and ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash to establish himself as an elite prospect.

Melifonwu was one of the most consistent bright spots during a bleak stretch of Connecticut football. The Huskies went just 14-35 in his four seasons with the program. He emerged as a starter after a redshirt freshman year, then he proceeded to get better and better as the team’s last line of defense. His 73 solo tackles in 2016 ranked eighth in the nation. He added four interceptions to prove his worth as a two-way defender in center field.

What does he bring to the Raiders secondary?

The All-AAC standout is the new physical prototype for an NFL safety. At 6’4 and 224 pounds and sporting a near four-foot vertical, he has the size to compete with any receiver in the league for jump balls. While his height can leave him open to missed tackles, he does a good job of lowering his pads and wrapping up ball carriers, limiting mistakes downfield and making him a tactical weapon against the run.

His top-level speed allows him to make up ground in a hurry, and his ability to close gaps on receivers makes him a deceptive presence in help coverage. UConn used him in a variety of alignments throughout his four years as a starter, and he was able to provide consistent coverage as a zone defender as well as track tight ends in man-to-man coverage. He reacts to routes well and doesn’t get turned around in coverage, allowing him to attack the ball at its highest point and prevent big plays.

If he’s such a great athlete, why did he fall to the 56th pick?

Melifonwu doesn’t have great instincts for the position, and while he’s a freak when it comes to running, cutting, and jumping, he sometimes struggles to put that talent together on the field. The London-born athlete admitted he’s still growing in an interview with the Hartford Courant.

"When I first came in here, I really had no football knowledge, just a little bit," said Melifonwu. "Through the years you gain football IQ from the coaches, the players, studying film. My football IQ continues to grow with a great head coach."

Quarterbacks with time in the pocket can keep his attention with their eyes, sometimes preventing him from jumping on developing routes and instead locking him into a decoy target. While he’s great with a lot of space, his effectiveness wanes in short-field situations; according to Pro Football Focus, he allowed 12 touchdowns his final three seasons in Storrs.

He struggles to shed blockers — a lapse that will only grow during the transition from the AAC to the NFL. He also has a tendency to bite hard on play-action fakes, luring him toward the line of scrimmage and taking him away from his duties over the top. These are all coachable fixes, but at 23 years old, he’s an older prospect who may not have as high of a ceiling as some of the younger defensive backs in the class of 2017.

Where does he fit with the Raiders?

The logical spot for Melifonwu in a defense is as a box safety in the Kam Chancellor mold. But Oakland drafted a hard-hitting strong safety last year in the first round when the team took Karl Joseph.

Sorting out the secondary will be an interesting storyline for the Raiders in 2017 and it could mean Joseph takes over at free safety for Reggie Nelson, freeing up Melifonwu to be the thumper in the secondary.