Lions notebook: With injuries behind him, Melifonwu making strides

Detroit News

Allen Park — Asked which players have made the most noticeable improvements during these early stages of the offseason program, one of the first names mentioned by Detroit Lions coach Campbell was Ifeatu Melifonwu.

With Tracy Walker still working his way back from last year’s Achilles injury, Melifonwu, the third-year defensive back out of Syracuse, has been getting plenty of reps with the first-team defense. And he’s been shining with the those opportunities, showing noticeably improved positioning, timing and playmaking skills a year after making the position switch to safety from cornerback.

Durability has hindered Melifonwu’s development through his first two seasons, with quadriceps, hamstring and ankle injuries costing him significant practice time. But, that hasn’t been the case this offseason, which has been key to taking a step forward.

“He’s relatively new to the (safety) position and you’re right — the injuries hurt him, not being able to get the reps, the repetitions, added time on task,” Campbell said. “This is one of the few times that we’ve had him for a significant amount of time, consistently, consecutively, and so that, in itself, is paying dividends right now. We see growth. He’s coming along.

“And look, here’s the thing, Iffy’s a pretty smart player,” Campbell continued. “He really is. He gets it. He just needs time. He needs time on task, he needs reps, like a lot of young guys do. And particularly, when you’re talking about a new position.”

In addition to Melifonwu’s work at safety, he’s also been getting some reps at cornerback again. It’s not that the team is considering a move back to his former position. It’s more about establishing an ability to potentially back up multiple spots as he prepares to fight for a roster spot in camp.

“I’m way more comfortable than last year,” Melifonwu said. “Last year, everything was new. It was just — I had never played safety before, so it was just a big transition. The rotations and fitting in the gaps. I feel like, now, I’m thinking less because I have it down. I’m more comfortable this year.”

Vet predicts brighter days for budding star

Another Lions safety, Kerby Joseph, capitalized on Walker’s and Melifonwu’s injuries last season, moving into the starting lineup as a rookie and instantly impressing with his playmaking ability. The third-round pick out of Illinois snagged four interceptions and forced two fumbles in 2022, solidifying himself as a piece of the team’s young core on that side of the ball.

New teammate C.J. Gardner-Johnson, who led the NFL with six interceptions last season, sees a player who is just scratching the surface with his potential.

“I mean he’s a ballhawk,” Gardner-Johnson said. “I picked off Tom Brady twice in one season. He picked off Aaron Rodgers twice in one season, twice in one game. That’s hard to do on a quarterback that’s at a level you expect to not make a mistake.

“…He doesn’t realize how good he is, truthfully,” Gardner-Johnson said. “(He’s) one of the best young safeties in the game. When he really understands that you aren’t out here by yourself anymore, you’ve got help, you’ve got veterans around you, you can learn the game a little bit more, you’re going to see a whole different Kerby Joseph.”

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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