2019 NFL Week 4 practice squad power rankings: Obi Melifonwu waiting in the wings for Patriots' secondary
Bill Belichick's defense has been on fire, and the Patriots' practice squad features a freak at the safety spot
This season, New England has faced the Pittsburgh Steelers, Miami Dolphins and the third-string quarterback led New York Jets. The latter two clubs aren't breaking any league records for offensive efficiency this year. However, the Patriots are nearly lapping the field. They're allowing 3.5 yards per play (Panthers are second at 4.3). That 0.8-yard difference is the same disparity between the No. 2 and No. 8 defenses. New England has allowed only 32 first downs (the 49ers are second at 46).
And Bill Belichick has done it by flipping conventional wisdom on its head. He has built his defense from back to front in this modern, increasingly pass-crazed era. His secondary is outstanding, which helps the defensive line get to the quarterback. That secondary is anchored by star man-to-man cornerback Stephon Gilmore, a pair of dependable corners in Jason McCourty and Jonathan Jones, and three savvy, multidimensional veteran safeties: Patrick Chung, Duron Harmon and Devin McCourty.
And The Hoodie is quietly storing a super-freak of an athlete at safety on his practice squad. His name? Obi Melifonwu, my No. 2 safety in the 2017 draft class and a former second-round pick of the Oakland Raiders.
Here's what Melifonwu did at the combine two years ago:
|2017 combine||Height/Weight||Arm Length||40-YD Dash (% at safety spot)||Vertical||Broad Jump|
And forget about him just being a workout warrior. Melifonwu was a productive four-year starter at UConn -- a typically lowly program that has produced some seemingly lab-created NFL players -- and averaged 103 tackles in his final two seasons with six interceptions and eight pass breakups.
He quickly flamed out in Oakland, and injuries played a role in that, but he flashed in the past two preseasons for New England and is now into his second season soaking up immense knowledge of playing the safety position from McCourty, Harmon and Chung. Melifonwu is unlikely to see the field unless one of those three get sidelined by injury, but if Belichick believes anyone in that trio needs rest in order to gear up for the postseason, the 25-year-old Melifonwu could get playing time in the regular season. He debuts at No. 8 in my rankings this week.
As for the call-up streak: In Week 1, receiver Keelan Doss got the call up in Oakland. Before Week 2? It was Washington Redskins pass catcher Robert Davis. And now, the third call up of the season belongs to last week's No. 2 player, safety Adrian Colbert, formerly of the San Francisco 49ers, now of the Seattle Seahawks. The streak lives.
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These rankings will be updated throughout the season, as more players move onto practice squads while some get the call up to the 53-man roster.
1. Kyle Sloter, QB, Cardinals
In the preseason, the 6-foot-5, 217-pound former undrafted free agent quarterback from Northern Colorado completed 76.5% of his throws at a hefty 8.7 yards per attempt with four touchdowns and one interception. He flashed plenty of velocity of his throws -- especially at the intermediate levels -- good pocket patience, and impressive throw-on-the-run ability in the Vikings' play-action, bootleg heavy attack. Last preseason, his completion percentage was 73.0, and he threw four touchdowns without a pick.
2. Vincent Taylor, DT, Bills
After second-year defensive tackle Harrison Phillips went down with a torn ACL in Week 3, it was between Taylor and Kyle Peko to receive the call up from the Bills before their massive home game against the Patriots on Sunday, and the latter was recipient of said call. Despite missing out on a spot on Buffalo's 53-man roster for now, Taylor remains on the team's practice squad.
He was a sixth-round pick of the Dolphins in 2017 out of Oklahoma State, and in his final two years with the Cowboys, he had 12 sacks and 23 tackles for loss. At the combine, the 6-3, 304-pound interior defensive lineman tested solidly across the board with a 40-yard dash, broad jump, and three-cone drill all above the 56th percentile at the position. Taylor made his name as a run defender initially but showcased good hand use and a high motor as a pass rusher as well.
While playing a limited role in Miami in his first two seasons with the team, Taylor was very efficient. He recorded four tackles for loss, two sacks, and 45 total tackles on 185 snaps as a rookie and 204 snaps in 2018. He received "high-quality" grades of 84.1 and 76.3 respectively in 2017 and 2018 from Pro Football Focus.
3. Jeremy Reaves, S, Redskins
Reaves was everywhere for the Redskins in the preseason, and his collegiate career at South Alabama foreshadowed his multi-faceted skills at the safety position. Theon my 2018 Big Board -- and No. 13 safety -- went undrafted after registering at least 85 tackles in each of his final three years with a grand total of eight picks, eight forced fumbles, and 22 pass breakups in those seasons.
Despite a smaller-ish frame and average-at-best athletic ability, Reaves finds the football thanks to high-caliber instincts on the back end, and he's a willing, reliable run defender.
4. Duke Williams, WR, Bills
You may remember Williams from his time as a star wideout at Auburn ... back in 2014. He and Sammie Coates were the primary downfield targets for Nick Marshall. Williams was dismissed from the Tigers football team in 2015 for violating team rules and went undrafted after running 4.72 at the combine at 6-2, and 229 pounds. His agility drill times were very poor, too.
He then went the CFL route and led the league in receiving yards in 2018. After a strong albeit unspectacular training camp with the Bills, Williams showed out in the preseason with eight catches for 71 yards with two impressive scores in which he was able to showcase his rebounding ability. Williams is the epitome of a big-bodied target who knows how to shield defenders with his body and has strong hands.
5. Marcell Ateman, WR, Raiders
Ateman was picked in the seventh round of the 2018 Draft, and I thought he should've been picked much higher. Ateman was my No. 38 overall prospect and No. 4 wide receiver. While maybe I was a bit too high on him, Ateman averaged nearly 20 yards per reception and finished with over 1,110 yards in his senior season at Oklahoma State in 2017, although that accounted for just 22.8% of the Cowboys' passing offense that year.
At the combine, the 6-4 Ateman didn't test well, running 4.62 in the 40 and finishing with agility-drill times that didn't reach the 41st percentile at the position. He was definitely a "trust the tape" prospect for me, as he was a super-steady ball skills master in college. However, Ateman got the practice squad call up last season and flashed. He had 15 receptions for 154 yards and a touchdown on just 370 snaps. In the 2019 preseason, he had eight receptions for 101 yards. Ateman proved last year he can make an impact in the regular season and be, at the very least, a low-end No. 3 wideout in this league right now.
6. Jason Cabinda, LB, Lions
Cabinda averaged 89 tackles, 5.6 tackles for loss, 3.6 pass breakups and 2.3 sacks over his final three seasons at Penn State. While he didn't run the 40 during the pre-draft process, he didn't appear to be a super-fast linebacker but was always around the football due to quick processing skills and an always humming motor. He displayed refined block-defeating skills with the Nittany Lions and was not a liability in coverage.
After going undrafted last year, my No. 120 overall prospect in 2018 class signed with the Raiders and saw the field late in the season. He didn't dazzle but fared well on the inside, finishing with 21 total tackles and a "high quality" PFF grade of 73.6 on his 164 defensive snaps. In the 2019 preseason, Cabinda missed some tackles, which likely led to his release by the Raiders, but he has the mental ability and polished skills to sift through traffic to be a quality backup at the middle linebacker position.
7. Anthony Johnson, WR, Chargers
Per PFF, Johnson had the fifth-best contested-catch percentage among draft-eligible receivers in 2019 and the second-best yards per route run average in 2017 and 2018 combine, behind only first-round pick Marquise Brown. While Johnson didn't have a monstrous preseason, I believe he could be plugged into a part-time role for Los Angeles and contribute in a variety of ways as a rookie.
8. Obi Melifonwu, S, Patriots
Melifonwu played five regular-season snaps for New England a season ago and registered a tackle and allowed one catch for 5 yards. There's plenty of mystery surrounding him, as he barely saw the field with the Raiders after they made him the No. 56 overall selection in the 2017 Draft. It wouldn't shock me in the least if Belichick got the most out of him if and when he sees the field.
9. Dillon Mitchell, WR, Vikings
Mitchell was the unquestioned top target for Justin Herbert in 2018. He accounted for a very encouraging 36.7% of Oregon's receiving yards and scored 10 touchdowns. His game is predicated on slippery movements at the line and especially after the catch. Also, Mitchell is fast down the field. He ran 4.46 at the combine and tracks the football well on those long balls. He was my No. 58 overall prospect and No. 9 wideout in the 2019 class.
Mitchell only made one reception for 10 yards in the preseason, which is why he's lower on this list than his pre-draft ranking would indicate. The Vikings seemingly want to ride Dalvin Cook in 2019, but there isn't much depth behind Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs at receiver on Minnesota roster, meaning the 6-1, 197-pounder has a decent chance to get a call up at some point during the season.
10. Stanley Morgan, WR, Bengals
Morgan was my No. 99 overall prospect in the 2019 class, and my No. 16 wide receiver. In my final Big Board, I wrote this about him: "Morgan has a very well-rounded game and is a running back after the catch. He plays at 100 mph." Per PFF, he led all Big Ten receivers in downfield receiving yards (535) in 2018 and led all draft-eligible Big Ten receivers with plays of 20-plus yards (23), one more than second-round pick Parris Campbell.
At 6-0 and 202 pounds at the combine, the former Nebraska star ran a somewhat disappointing 4.53 in the 40. But all the rest of the on-field drills (vertical, broad jump, three cone, and short shuttle) were very good, as none of his results were below the 73rd percentile at the position. Morgan's statistics improved each year in college, and he finished by accounting for 33.8% of the Huskers' receiving yards. His arrow is still pointing up. He did have two drops in the preseason but reeled in five of eight targets for 63 yards in two games. While Morgan doesn't wow in any way, he's a swift mover, impressive after the catch, deceptively fast down the field, and can go up and high point the football.
ANTOINE WESLEY, WR, RAVENS: Wesley was a clear redshirt candidate, simply because of his spindly frame. At the combine, he measured in at just over 6-4 and 206 pounds. At Texas Tech, Wesley was as natural of a hands-catcher as I scouted in this past year's draft class. I'm serious. And with incredibly long 34-inch arms, mitts just under 10 inches, and a 37-inch vertical, Wesley boasts a mammoth catch radius. He had over 1,400 yards and accounted for a solid 33.3% of Texas Tech's receiving yards in 2018.
The former Red Raider had three catches for 60 yards in the preseason, and I view him on a similar track to that of one of Baltimore's fourth-round picks in 2018, Jaleel Scott, a lanky, ball-skills specialist who took advantage of his redshirt year (due to injury) and got stronger heading into Year 2. Scott looked the part in exhibition games this summer, as he lead the Ravens in receiving. Wesley can be that type of matchup-problem wideout down the road.
ELIJAH HOLYFIELD, RB, PANTHERS: Holyfield was a classic "plays faster than he timed" prospect. At Georgia, finally in a full-time role after Nick Chubb and Sony Michel departed to the NFL, his feet were impossibly light, and his vision was outstanding. His contact balance was consistent each week too. That led to him being my No. 2 back in the 2019 class ... before the combine. Holyfield tanked there. At a little over 5-10 and a bulky 217 pounds, he ran 4.78 and had a vertical jump in the 4th percentile at the running back position.
Those figures were the catalyst for him going undrafted, and while he did lose the No. 3 ball-carrier battle to Reggie Bonnafon in the preseason, Holyfield averaged a respectable 4.0 yards per carry on his 20 rushes. More importantly, he finished second only to Bonnafon among Carolina running backs in yards after contact per rush at a hefty 3.25, per Pro Football Focus. Holyfield is a natural runner who sees blocks before they're made, and he has a nice blend of quickness and functional power to be a contributing No. 3 running back in the NFL, although he won't run away from anyone in the open field.
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