How Detroit Lions’ Ifeatu Melifonwu is going about finding new home at safety

Detroit Free Press

Aaron Glenn always envisioned Ifeatu Melifonwu being a Swiss army knife in the Detroit Lions secondary. This fall, Melifonwu might finally be ready to bring that concept to life.

As a rookie, Melifonwu played primarily in nickel and dime packages as a slot cornerback, but he made his first career start at outside corner in a Week 2 loss to the Green Bay Packers and Glenn, the Lions’ second-year defensive coordinator, touted Melifonwu’s ability to play safety.

Melifonwu suffered a serious quad injury against the Packers that slowed his development. He spent the next 10 weeks on injured reserve, and when he returned he did so in a limited capacity, with Glenn not wanting to overwhelm him by having him learn a new position.

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Healthy now and more comfortable in his cornerback role, Melifonwu has spent the spring learning the safety position.

“A.G. and the coaches just asked me to try it,” Melifonwu said after the Lions’ third organized team activity practice of spring last week. “I’m a football player so they kind of want to just put me at different spots, see what works and just have versatility and know the other positions just in case if anything happens.”

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The Lions have a young but potentially deep secondary, though several key players are returning from injury.

Amani Oruwariye is locked into one starting cornerback spot and expected to land a contract extension this summer, and Jeff Okudah (in walk-throughs) and Will Harris (in drills) took first-team reps at the other cornerback position in the Lions’ open OTA last week.

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Free agent addition Mike Hughes and second-year cornerbacks AJ Parker and Jerry Jacobs also are in the mix for playing time at cornerback. Jacobs has not practiced this spring while rehabbing from a torn ACL, and Okudah has been limited in his return from a ruptured Achilles tendon.

At safety, Tracy Walker and DeShon Elliott are the Lions’ projected starters, with rookie third-round pick Kerby Joseph among others in the mix for playing time.

Melifonwu, a third-round pick last spring, said playing a combination cornerback-safety role has “always been in my head.” Multiple NFL teams talked to him about moving to safety, where his brother, Obi, played five seasons for four NFL teams, during the pre-draft process.

And now that he’s had a chance to drill at the position he said he likes the “different perspective” it provides.

“I do take pride in that, that the coaches can see me and use me as a matchup and put me where they need to be for each week,” Melifonwu said.

With his quad injury behind him, Melifonwu said he spent the early part of the offseason working out in Tampa where his focus was “staying healthy” and refining his technique.

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“I feel like it was a lot of watching film, self-correction like watching myself,” he said. “Even going back to training camp one-on-ones, in-season one-on-ones. and then I had a cut-up made of just me, my press reps, my man to man coverage reps. So it was a lot of just focusing on me and my technique.”

At safety, Melifonwu said he is more focused on learning the mental side of the position, adjusting to motions and knowing the responsibilities of the other 10 players on the field.

Harris, who played safety, outside cornerback and slot corner for the Lions last fall, said Melifonwu has been a quick study at the position and has “an amazing opportunity” in front of him this year.

“It starts in here,” Harris said, pointing at his chest. “It starts in your heart and takes a lot of courage to be able to do that, to be able to expose yourself to new situations and a whole new set of responsibilities and be willing to take that task on. And Iffy is one of the guys who didn’t think twice about it, at least from the outside. I think he’s doing a great job. He’s flying around and everything’s good. Me personally, I have a ton of respect for him and being able to fly around and pick everything up learning safety, too.”

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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