Why Detroit Lions see rookie CB Ifeatu Melifonwu 'being one of our main guys' in future

When coaches and front office personnel sit down to do their postmortem next month, rookie Detroit Lions cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu wants to give them something to think about.

Melifonwu will play a prominent role in the Lions' depleted secondary in the final two games of the regular season, this Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks and next week against the Green Bay Packers.

The Lions are without top cornerbacks Amani Oruwariye, Jerry Jacobs and Jeff Okudah because of injuries; Melifonwu is in line to make his second straight start opposite Will Harris at cornerback.

Packers wide receiver Davante Adams catches a pass against Lions cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu during the second half of the Lions' 35-17 loss on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021, in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Packers wide receiver Davante Adams catches a pass against Lions cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu during the second half of the Lions' 35-17 loss on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021, in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

REMEMBERING MADDEN: Lions OC Anthony Lynn's funny Madden story

LOOKING TO 2022: Why Lions' most important free agent might be Jalen Reeves-Maybin

UNDER CENTER: Here's what Jared Goff's return vs. Seahawks would mean for Lions

This week, he will match up with talented Seahawks receivers D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Next week, it could be All-Pro Davante Adams.

How Melifonwu fares will go a long way towards determining his outlook for next season.

"Here’s what I want to see these last two weeks," Lions coach Dan Campbell said. "I want to see a guy that is not a slow burn. He comes out hot early and has already got it turned up, and he’s ready to compete, and he’s got the look in his eye and not taking him a minute to get going. That’s what we’re looking for, because he’s got it in his body, and he’s smart and he works. So that’s the next step here for him.”

A third-round pick out of Syracuse, Melifonwu has played sparingly because of a severe quad strain that kept him out nine games.

He opened the season as the Lions' dime defensive back, playing behind Oruwariye, Okudah and nickel cornerback A.J. Parker, then started a Week 2 loss to the Packers after Okudah ruptured his Achilles tendon in the opener.

Melifonwu barely made it through half of that game before injuring his quad, and he spent the next two months watching as Jacobs passed him on the depth chart.

Jacobs tore the ACL in his left knee earlier this month, a nine-month injury that jeopardizes his availability for the start of next season.

The Lions will have to consider cornerback options in free agency and the draft; Okudah's health and ability also are in question.

But Melifonwu's play may determine how big of a need the Lions have at the cornerback position.

"We expect a lot from Iffy. We think that he’s a matchup guy for us," Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. "One thing we want to make sure going into these last two games, we get a really good look at how we can put him in positions to utilize his skill set, cause he is a guy that we’re looking forward in the future to being one of our main guys."

Melifonwu said Thursday it was "tough going from starting and playing well (to) getting injured and being out and watching for 10, 11 weeks," but he stayed sharp mentally by attending most practices and meetings, even while on crutches.

Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts catches a pass behind Lions cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu during the second half of the Lions' 20-16 loss on Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021, in Atlanta.
Falcons tight end Kyle Pitts catches a pass behind Lions cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu during the second half of the Lions' 20-16 loss on Sunday, Dec. 26, 2021, in Atlanta.

He and Okudah watched practice tape together, and he has spent the past few weeks knocking off physical rust in his return to the field.

"I don’t think I lost any development mentally, but obviously, physically, once you’re out there and just stacking days, you kind of get better as the season progresses," he said. "That’s really with anyone, the more reps you get, the better, so I kind of just lost a little bit of the physical reps."

Melifonwu played sparingly in his return against the Minnesota Vikings, then missed the Lions' game at Denver the following week with COVID-19.

He played five snaps in a Week 15 win over the Arizona Cardinals, and had a mixed performance while matching up some with talented rookie tight end Kyle Pitts in last week's loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

“I want to finish off the year strong," Melifonwu said. "I kind of want to show basically show what I’ve shown in the Green Bay game, the first half when I was out there. Really up until that last play, I really want to show that and show what I can do. It was tough being a rookie and missing the majority of this season, so I just want to get back to what I know I can do and what the coaches know I can do as well."

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Detroit Lions' Ifeatu Melifonwu can play himself into CB future