The New England Patriots, who will be off until training camp starts in late July, currently have 90 players on their active roster. However, only 53 of them will be able to survive the cutdowns on August 31 and ultimately make the team. Over the course of the summer, we will take a look at the players fighting for those spots to find out who has the best chances of helping the Patriots defend their Super Bowl title.
Today, the series continues with one of New England’s depth players in the secondary.
Name: Obi Melifonwu
Position: Strong safety
Jersey number: 22
Size: 6’4, 225 lbs.
2018 review: Only 16 months after the Oakland Raiders made him a second-round draft pick, the team decided to expose Obi Melifonwu to the waiver wire: Oakland released Melifonwu, who ended his rookie campaign on injured reserve due to a hip issue, with an injury designation. No team claimed the 56th selection of the 2017 draft, however, and the Connecticut product reverted to the Raiders’ injured reserve.
Two months later, in late October, Oakland parted ways with Melifonwu for good and released him off its IR list. Despite his draft pedigree, he lasted on the open market for almost two weeks — at which point the Patriots decided to pick the defensive back up by signing him to a two-year, $1.4 million contract. The deal added Melifonwu to a crowded New England secondary, and his usage developed accordingly.
All in all, he appeared in just three of a possible ten games for the Patriots. Melifonwu was on the field for a combined 20 defensive snaps against the New York Jets and the Minnesota Vikings in weeks twelve and thirteen of the regular season, respectively, and 25 more in the kicking game. Given his limited playing time, his statistical output — one tackle on defense, two more on special teams — was hardly surprising.
The playoffs was more of the same for Melifonwu. He was active for only one game — the AFC Championship against the Kansas City Chiefs — and again was unable to regularly see the field. In fact, his three special teams snaps were all the postseason playing time he was given by the coaching staff. Nevertheless, the second-year man, who registered on tackle against the Chiefs, was part of the Super Bowl winning team. So his season can still be seen as a successful one in the grand scheme of things.
2019 preview: Entering his second year in the Patriots’ system with a salary cap hit of $693,438, Melifonwu is one of the players on the roster that is hardest to project. On the one hand, he did enter the draft with plenty of potential given his size and athletic abilities. On the other, however, he has had a quiet pro career up to this point and failed to establish a clear role in New England over the second half of the 2018 season.
Anything seems possible, therefore: Melifonwu could establish himself as a valuable strong safety/linebacker hybrid in the mold of Patrick Chung and maybe even build the foundation for one day taking over for the veteran. Then again, the 25-year-old could also get lost in what is one of the deepest secondaries in all of football — one that added a similarly sized player in the second round of this year’s draft in cornerback Joejuan Williams.
Melifonwu might find himself somewhere in the middle when the regular season comes around, though. He could very well become Chung’s primary backup, and see rotational playing time on defense but serving primarily as a special teamer. Given how his 2018 campaign went, such a development seems realistic and would also be a positive one for Melifonwu: he is not guaranteed a roster spot and needs a solid summer to justify the team keeping him.
If that does not happen, however, seeing the Patriots part ways with him should be expected — and if only to get him to the practice squad. After all, you can only keep so many players in what is already a deep defensive backfield. And with de facto roster locks like Jonathan Jones or Duke Dawson Jr. also able of providing depth at safety, Melifonwu might be buried on the depth chart — and ultimately end up off the roster once cutdowns begin in late August.
At the end of the day, Melifonwu is a virtual unknown heading into the season — and therefore one of the more interesting players to watch in training camp and the preseason.