Paul Gutierrez, ESPN Staff Writer 407d

Raiders second-round draft pick Obi Melifonwu ready for NFL debut

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Obi Melifonwu, the Oakland Raiders' second-round draft pick, will come off injured reserve and make his NFL debut Sunday night against the Miami Dolphins.

Just be careful when asking the rookie safety what he sees himself doing -- especially five days before the game.

“Can’t say what my role is,” Melifonwu said after Tuesday’s walkthrough at the IMG Academy. “I’m all for the team. I’m a team player. So whatever that role may be, that they need me to fill, I’ll definitely be ready to fill it.”

Sounds nebulous, no?

After all, Melifonwu was taken with the No. 56 overall pick out of UConn to help the Raiders address their issues in covering tight ends. At 6-foot-3, 224 pounds with nary an ounce of fat on his sinewy but muscular frame, Melifonwu is a physical specimen who, unfortunately for him and Oakland, could not stay healthy.

He suffered a knee injury in training camp and went on IR after playing 22 snaps on defense and making two tackles in the Raiders’ Week 3 preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys. He also played 13 snaps on special teams and had an assist.

The Raiders opened his practice window two weeks ago and, thus, he is eligible to join the team in Week 9. Of course, Oakland will have to make a roster move to add him to the 53-man roster.

Raiders coach Jack Del Rio cautioned about expecting too much, too soon from the rookie.

“He’s shown that he needs some work,” Del Rio said. “When a young guy, regardless of how talented they are, misses as much time as he has practicing, he’s going to be rusty. We’ve had a couple good weeks to work him in and get him some looks and prepare him.

“He’s physically ready to go, and mentally. As far as game conditioning and stuff, that will have to come. It’s good to see him running around.”

Special teams would seemingly be a way to introduce him to the speed of a regular-season NFL game, though getting in on nickel defense against the Dolphins, who have Julius Thomas and Anthony Fasano at tight end, would be a good challenge for a rookie.

“Whatever he’s called on,” Del Rio said of Melifonwu. “We obviously had a big role for him prior to his injury, and we can’t just put that big role back on him right away. We’ll have to work him into it.”

Melifonwu had eight interceptions in 48 games at UConn, including four as a senior.

He has also had a mentor in the secondary with Pro Bowler Reggie Nelson, who said he has “huge” expectations of Melifonwu.

“His athleticism,” Nelson said when asked what Melifonwu brings to Oakland. “I mean, coverage. All of the above. Y’all seen him in training camp. That’s why he got drafted high and they expect him to play high.”

Melifonwu insisted he has practiced like he was prepping for a game since the season started. It just ramps up now that it is real.

“Mentally, (I’m) getting in the playbook even more,” he said. “Trying to figure out how, what’s the best way to study in order to come back and be able to be effective.

“I’m just prepared to do anything the team needs me to do. I don’t know exactly what that is, but I’m definitely up for the task. I’m definitely up for the challenge.”

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