Despite the lack of a true scouting combine, the NFL Draft is still occurring as planned in just a couple weeks. In recent years, that fact has created some dread among Syracuse Orange football fans, as we hoped a player or two could sneak into the seventh round (and many times they did). Not so in 2021, however!
Yes, this year, it does appear that three Syracuse players will hear their names called during this year’s draft, which takes place April 29-May 1. In advance of that, we’re previewing each of them to discuss where they might be selected. We’ll also have an additional profile for the one Orange prospect who appears to be a free agent target. First up...
Name: Ifeatu Melifonwu
Weight: 205 lbs.
Hometown: South Grafton, Mass.
NFL Draft Projections: Looks like a second rounder to many, or at worst, seem like he’ll go in the third round.
2020 Stats: Collected a career-high 55 tackles, with three TFLs (one sack), 10 defended passes and an interception. He was one of the top corners in the ACC last year, failing to allow a touchdown pass until the final week of the season against Notre Dame.
Last year, he was the team’s best defender by Pro Football Focus grades, at 78.8. He was also a top-five pass-rusher, the best player in coverage and top-five in run defense. It was an all-around great season despite the team losing a lot of games and dealing with a ton of injuries. All of that was impressive enough to get a Senior Bowl invite, too.
Career Stats: In just three seasons on the field, Melifonwu collected 88 tackles, five TFLs (one sack), defended 26 passes and hauled in three interceptions. While others in the secondary seemed to have big plays down pat, Iffy was more of a cover corner throughout his time at SU (and a very good one at that).
Game(s) to Watch: Check out Syracuse’s 2020 games vs. Clemson (three passes defended) and North Carolina (two passes defended) for the most recent showcases of his skill set. The 2019 wins over Duke and Wake Forest, respectively, could also serve as quality examples of how his coverage helped facilitate some risks for playmakers like Andre Cisco and Trill Williams.
Pro Day Performance:
Melifonwu displayed some speed at Syracuse’s pro day, with a 4.48-second 40-yard dash, and his wing span’s over 78 inches, which explains a lot of how he’s able to get his hands on passes. Between his tape and pro day performance, he showed himself able to cover quite a bit of ground and display some leaping ability. All of that bodes well for what’s needed at the NFL level.
He’s put up some of his best games against top opponents (Clemson, UNC) and the aforementioned size and speed combination is something that can’t be taught. Playing on a team dealing with injuries and a lot of weak spots in the defense, he was still able to make a major impact and impact results. The fact that he’s strong enough to acquit himself admirably against the run and in pass-rushing situations is also a major positive. Add that to extensive experience in both zone and man-to-man, and he makes himself a pretty good fit for most NFL defenses.
He’s not necessarily the best tackler (graded out at a 63.3 there last year, per PFF) and you could see how his size is definitely on the larger size for a corner. As was the case for the entire Syracuse secondary last year, the approach was bend and don’t break. So most receivers got a bit of a cushion as Melifonwu and others opted to allow the four-yard reception over letting would-be pass-catchers loose against the inexperienced safeties (hence his big jump in tackle numbers in 2020). TBD if that would continue in a pro defense. I’d assume not so much.
Fun Fact: Once he’s selected, Ifeatu would not be the first member of his family to hear his name called during the NFL Draft. His brother Obi Melifonwu — who you might recall from SU’s 2016 game vs. UConn — was picked in the second round by the Raiders in 2017.
TNIAAM Draft Prediction: He’s a sure selection in this year’s draft and should hear his name called in the second round, in all likelihood. Obviously trades can happen, but some teams that are picking between the middle and end of the second and could use some cornerback help include the Cardinals, Bills, Saints, Steelers and Titans.