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Key question about Raiders rookie safety Obi Melifonwu: Can he cover Gronk?

Updated May 5, 2017 - 7:57 pm

ALAMEDA, Calif. — So how is this for a reach …

A major way the Raiders can compete for a Super Bowl by dethroning the Patriots atop the AFC is by having a rookie safety who was born in London to Nigerian parents prove he can cover the NFL’s coolest party animal.

Come to think of it, not that big a one.

Obi Melifonwu is a walking, talking infomercial for 24 Hour Fitness or Gold’s or Ben Dunne or fill-in-your-favorite-gym here, and his importance to the Raiders’ quest of making the game of Roman Numerals aligns directly with such athletic gifts.

And, well, how much they translate into covering tight ends.

It has been a huge problem in Oakland, certainly not one that just recently reared its ugly head on defense.

It has been going on for years now.

But in the 6-foot-4-inch Melifonwu, a second-round draft pick out of Connecticut, the Raiders might have discovered someone capable of limiting what have been forgettable numbers when it comes to tight ends ripping up their secondary.

Question becomes, how much will going 11 feet, 9 inches on the board jump and 44 inches in the vertical and running the 40-yard dash in 4.40 seconds at the NFL Scouting Combine mean to Melifonwu when Tom Brady tells Rob Gronkowski to run a crossing pattern in the red zone?

“I really haven’t heard of the issues,” Melifonwu said.

Which means TV operators in Storrs, Connecticut, haven’t shown any games involving the silver and black in some time.

The Raiders opened a three-day rookie minicamp Friday at their practice facility, where draft picks and undrafted free agents and those invited on a tryout basis spent two hours in a noncontact setting. They picked up things such as terminology and scheme while trying to look competent doing so.

I’m not sure how Melifonwu will react to the pressure of Sundays, but there is no question he looks the part.

“He’s very gifted,” Raiders coach Jack Del Rio said. “He has a good head on his shoulders. He comes in, and he’s just trying to soak up our system right now. Athletically, he’s very blessed. He has highway speed that you look for. Athleticism, changing direction, and then he’ll come up and hit you.

“We like the tape. We think he’s a good football player, and we’re happy to start working with him.”

Some of the struggles against tight ends have been a lack of communication. Some of it is a lack of size. But it’s not as if those in the NFL at that spot run complex routes. If your technique is sound and your eyes don’t wander, defending the position isn’t the most difficult of assignments.

Still, the Raiders ranked 23rd defensively against tight ends in 2016, allowing averages of 65.5 yards per game and 7.6 per catch to the position.

Cleveland was the worst at such things, but what wasn’t it bad at?

The Raiders return starting safeties Reggie Nelson (in a contract year at age 33) and second-year player Karl Joseph, but it’s already obvious Melifonwu will get his chance to compete for substantial time.

And in an AFC that has the likes of Gronkowski and Travis Kelce and Tyler Eifert and Delanie Walker and Hunter Henry running those crossing routes, his size and length and athleticism will be a welcomed addition.

His college coach (Bob Diaco) called Melifonwu the nation’s best safety before last season, strong praise for a player in the American Athletic Conference whose name didn’t appear on any preseason All-America lists and who had no other scholarship offers coming out of high school.

He would lead the team in tackles as a senior with 118 —including a staggering 24 against Tulane — and four interceptions. But it wasn’t until he produced those eye-popping combine numbers that the hype around him soared.

About that tape the Raiders like: Melifonwu also is versatile enough to play some cornerback in the slot, along with roaming the box against the run and covering receivers over the top.

“I think this next level, as a young guy coming in, the quicker you can learn the playbook and the scheme, the quicker you can get on the field and the faster you can play,” he said. “Right now, I’m just focused on learning the playbook and focused on what I can do to help the team.

“I think it was when I stepped onto the green and put my helmet on (Friday). Then, it felt real. I am really doing this.”

It also will feel real the first time the NFL’s coolest party animal is running at him in the red zone.

Only that’s a different sort of real.

That’s real world stuff, and the Raiders need Melifonwu to prosper in it.

Contact columnist Ed Graney at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “Seat and Ed” on Fox Sports 98.9 FM and 1340 AM from 2 to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.

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