FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Like most kids growing up in Grafton, Mass., Obi Melifonwu had his eyes on the Patriots.
Through a dynastic rise, through an undefeated regular season, through a couple Super Bowls in college. Among his earliest memories was Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal that clinched a divisional round playoff win over the Raiders in the Snow Bowl. Fifteen years later, Oakland selected Melifonwu in the second round of the NFL Draft out of UConn.
Now back home, having been released by the Raiders in October, all eyes in Grafton are on the young safety. He’s a New England Patriot.
“Being able to drive 40 minutes to home is something that makes me happy,” Melifonwu said Friday, three days after signing with the franchise. “(It) makes my family happy and definitely makes my friends happy.”
Hours before inking a two-year deal with New England, Melifonwu attended his first Patriots home game Sunday night. The Pats beat the Packers, 31-17, by riding their best defensive performance of the season. And then they added the finest physical specimen currently residing in their secondary.
At the 2017 NFL Combine, Melifonwu proved to be the best athlete of his draft class, a group that included Myles Garrett and Christian McCaffrey. Better yet, he posted numbers that eclipsed those produced by a bevy of NFL stars during their respective draft processes.
Melifonwu leapt higher than Odell Beckham Jr., ran faster than Devin Hester and clocked a quicker time than Darren Sproles. He checked in at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds, best among all safeties. Injuries, a coaching change and questions about his passion for the game then derailed his tenure in Oakland.
Stability is what Melifonwu needed this fall. And stability is what he found in Foxborough after taking numerous visits around the league.
“It just seemed like a good fit,” Melifonwu said. “The coaches, the players, everything they’re doing here, I wanted to be a part of. (It’s) a winning team.”
Since arriving, Melifonwu’s participated in every team practice and says he’s logged extra hours with safeties coach Steve Belichick. He’s completely healed from the hip injury that landed him on Oakland’s injured reserve list. The Raiders placed Melifonwu on IR on Sept. 11, then waived him a month later.
As a rookie, he began his NFL career on the sidelines due to an ankle injury suffered in the preseason. Then Melifonwu returned off injured reserve, played in five games and made one start at cornerback against New England, a disastrous 33-8 loss for the silver and black. The former Husky let up a 64-yard touchdown pass to Brandin Cooks and soon went back on IR to finish a sad season on a sour note.
Aside from his physical tools, Melifonwu offers intriguing potential due to his positional versatility. Even if he’s ill-suited to play corner, the Patriots may opt to use him like Patrick Chung, who fills a variety of roles from dime linebacker to preferred man-coverage defender against opposing tight ends.
Asked whether the Patriots will play him anywhere outside of his normal home at safety, Bill Belichick said Friday he was unsure.
“We’ll see. We’ve really only had him for a couple of days so we’ll see how it goes,” Belichick said Friday. “He has good size. He’s smart. He learns quickly. He’s athletic. We’ll see what he can do. I don’t know. Possibly.”
Whatever role the Patriots find for him, Melifonwu contends he’ll be happy to fill it. He’s yet to discuss any position change with the coaching staff; only how to take his first steps toward helping his hometown team on Sundays and proving what he believes never could demonstrate in Oakland.
“I know I can play,” Melifonwu said. “It’s just a matter of getting the opportunity to play.”