2021 NFL draft: Syracuse's Ifeatu Melifonwu fits big, athletic press-CB mold

Leading up to the 2021 NFL draft, which starts April 29, Yahoo Sports will count down our top 100 overall prospects. We’ll count them down in groups of five for Nos. 100-51, followed by more in-depth reports on our top 50 players, with help from our scouting assistant, Liam Blutman. We reserve the right to make changes to players’ grades and evaluations based on injury updates, pro-day workouts or late-arriving information from NFL teams.

Other prospect rankings: Nos. 100-96 | 95-91 | 90-86 | 85-81 | 80-76 | 75-71 | 70-66 | 65-61 | 60-56 | 55-51 | 50. OT Liam Eichenberg | 49. WR Terrace Marshall Jr. | 48. LB Chazz Surratt | 47. EDGE Joe Tryon | 46. OT-OG Alex Leatherwood | 45. CB Asante Samuel Jr. | 44. DL Levi Onwuzurike | 43. LB Jabril Cox | 42. DT Daviyon Nixon | 41. EDGE Ronnie Perkins | 40. LB Nick Bolton | 39. CB Ifeatu Melifonwu | 38. WR Elijah Moore | 37. OT Jalen Mayfield | 36. EDGE Carlos Basham Jr. | 35. CB Elijah Molden | 34. RB Travis Etienne | 33. WR Kadarius Toney | 32. EDGE Jayson Oweh | 31. LB Zaven Collins | 30. DT Christian Barmore | 29. QB Mac Jones | 28. CB Caleb Farley | 27. RB Javonte Williams | 26. C-OG Landon Dickerson | 25. S Trevon Moehrig | 24. CB Greg Newsome II | 23. WR Rashod Bateman | 22. EDGE Greg Rousseau | 21. OT Christian Darrisaw | 20. RB Najee Harris | 19. LB-S Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah | 18. EDGE Jaelan Phillips | 17. OT Teven Jenkins | 16. EDGE Kwity Paye | 15. CB Jaycee Horn | 14. OT-OG Rashawn Slater | 13. OG-OT Alijah Vera-Tucker | 12. WR DeVonta Smith | 11. EDGE Azeez Ojulari | 10. CB Patrick Surtain II | 9. OT Penei Sewell | 8. QB Zach Wilson | 7. LB Micah Parsons | 6. QB Trey Lance | 5. WR Jaylen Waddle | 4. QB Justin Fields | 3. WR Ja'Marr Chase | 2. TE Kyle Pitts | 1. QB Trevor Lawrence

Here are how we use our prospect grades for the 2021 NFL draft. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
Here is how we use our prospect grades for the 2021 NFL draft. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

39. Syracuse CB Ifeatu Melifonwu

6-foot-2, 205 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 5.92 — potential starter

TL;DR scouting report: Long-armed corner with plus athleticism whose instincts could be sharper

Games watched: Liberty (2020), North Carolina (2020), Clemson (2020), Notre Dame (2020)

The skinny: A 2-star Rivals "athlete" recruit, Melifonwu committed to the Orange over Michigan. He redshirted in 2017 and played nine games in 2018 (missing four games with a hamstring injury), making 15 tackles (one for loss) and defending six passes. In 2019, Melifonwu missed two more games (deemed a “lower-body injury”), making 18 tackles (one for loss), two interceptions and 10 passes defended in nine games (eight starts).

He put together his best season in 2020, making 55 tackles (three for losses), one interception, 10 pass breakups and a sack in 11 starts. Melifonwu declared for the 2021 draft and attended the Senior Bowl as a redshirt junior on track to graduate. Melifonwu’s older brother, Obi, was a second-round draft pick in 2016 who played with the Raiders and Patriots, and is currently on the 49ers' roster.

Syracuse CB Ifeatu Melifonwu has gotten his hands on a lot of passes the past three seasons.  (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Syracuse CB Ifeatu Melifonwu has gotten his hands on a lot of passes the past three seasons. (Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Upside: Not quite the athletic unicorn his brother was but a noticeably better football player overall. Plus, the athletic traits are still very good — he stood out in pro day testing with excellent numbers in the vertical (42 inches) and broad jumps (134 inches), as well as the bench press (16 reps). Terrific combo of mass and athleticism.

Ideal frame for a press-man/Cover 3 corner — excellent length (6-foot-2 with 32 1/4-inch arms) and great weight distribution. Moves extremely well for his size. Fluid and fast glider. Can match up with a variety of WR body types and skills. Saw some reps against faster tight ends and held his own.

Able to maintain leverage fairly well throughout the route and can drive and close quickly on the ball. Effective shadowing on short and intermediate routes. Shows a little late makeup speed when receivers try to stack him.

Defends the run and screen game well — unafraid to mix it up physically and takes some personal pride in it. Able and willing tackler in space — doesn’t allow a lot of YAC opportunities. Wasn’t asked to blitz much but showed potential at it late last season. Good strength.

Fluid in man and zone coverages — lots of Cover 2 and Cover 3, plus experience in press and off-man coverage. History of making plays on the ball — 26 passes defended in 29 career games, including 20 in his past 20 contests. Times up his jump well at the catch point and uses his length to close down receiving windows.

Ideally, this would be an interception against Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, but it’s hard to knock how Melifonwu played this route and throw otherwise:

Said to like football more than his brother did — scouting the last name, and not the individual player, could haunt some teams. Solid special-teams experience — could be a quality gunner.

Downside: Instincts still developing in coverage. More of a see-ball, get-ball corner — can continue to develop his anticipatory instincts to get a step on receivers at the catch point. Not as effective in off-man — gives too much space and appears less sure than when he’s in press bail. Can do a better job of looking through receivers in zone.

Hands (9 inches) on the smaller side. Dropped a few would-be interceptions. Good but hardly elite speed (40-yard dash time of 4.48 seconds). Stiffness in his hips at times — showed up in testing numbers (4.34-second short shuttle, 7.01-second 3-cone drill). That tightness showed up in a few one-on-one matchups with receivers at the Senior Bowl.

Strangely, his lack of physicality shows up where you’d like to see it more from a corner — at the line of scrimmage. Allows too many free releases and doesn’t jam effectively. Has the frame to body wideouts off the line but doesn’t do it nearly enough. Will have some of his two-hand jams at the line swatted away by technically gifted or strong wideouts.

Flagged seven times in 2020 — pass interference, facemask and personal foul calls. Has some games (see Clemson) where his tackling comes into question.

Might strictly be an outside corner — very little experience covering the slot (fewer than 20 career snaps). Played the right side exclusively in 2020 (although he split time on each side in 2018 and 2019). Has dabbled at safety but would need time adjusting there if needed.

Play appeared to drop off down the stretch in 2020 — not as clean and crisp in his execution and attention to detail in the final few games of last season. History of nagging lower-body injuries.

Best-suited destination: Big corners who run well tend to get drafted fast, which is what we expect with Melifonwu. He would fit best with zone-heavy teams that ask their corners to reroute receivers at the line, as well as in press-man schemes. That means he should have fairly wide appeal in the NFL. His physical gifts also should allow Melifonwu to see the field early, even if a few of his shortcomings could allow for hiccups while he gets acclimated.

Did you know: Melifonwu also played basketball, lacrosse and ran track in high school. He once had a six-TD game as a running back and was captain of the basketball team.

Player comp: Jimmy Smith

Expected draft range: Top-40 pick

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