Two things happened to Ifeatu Melifonwu in his third season this year he wasn't afforded in Year 1 or Year 2.
One, health. Two, opportunity.
Melifonwu played in just seven games as a rookie in 2021 after the Lions made him a third-round pick in the NFL Draft that year. A quad injury landed him on IR. An ankle injury limited him to 10 games in 2022. But this past year Melifonwu avoided injury and played in all 17 games.
He became a starter the last six games of the season. That's when the potential Lions general manager Brad Holmes saw in the 6-foot-3, 210-pound cornerback out of Syracuse stood out. Melifonwu was moved from corner to safety midway through last season with this year being his first full run at the position.
"Being healthy I feel like my confidence was growing every week," Melifonwu said after the season. "It's going to grow in the offseason as well as I go back and watch myself. I know I'm probably going to be kicking myself because there's probably a lot of plays I left out there during the whole season.
"But I'm just happy to finish this year healthy and my confidence is going to keep growing."
Melifonwu came on strong at the end of the year after being inserted into the starting lineup Week 14. In Week 15 vs. Denver, he posted two passes defended, a sack and a forced fumble. In a Week 16 matchup in Minnesota, Melifonwu defended two passes, posted 2.0 sacks and had the NFC North title-clinching interception at the end of the game. The following week in Dallas he recorded his second pick of the season.
Despite playing in just 37 percent of Detroit's snaps on defense this season, Melifonwu was one of three defensive backs in the NFL to produce at least 3.0 sacks and two interceptions.
"He had got his chance, and he did a really nice job to step up," Holmes said this week of his third-year safety.
Melifonwu became a weapon as a blitzer and pass rusher too, and it's something he said he worked really hard to incorporate into his game.
"I blitzed one time in college. I had a sack on my one blitz in college," he said. "I think it was just my size and athletic ability and then I learned to use my hands this season. Meeting with (defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn) AG he would explain the blitzes to me like, 'We are showing down here, they got to slide this way, you are going to come free.' He would explain blitzes to me so I would really trust it. Then it was just timing it up and working on my disguise."
Melifonwu said when he tried to blitz as a rookie playing some nickel corner it was so bad the coaching staff stopped asking him to do it. He was either tipping the blitz off too early or was going too late and not getting home. There's an art to being a good blitzer in the NFL and Melifonwu has found the happy medium between disguise and timing. Being a freak athlete doesn't hurt either.
The contributions Melifonwu made late in the season and in Detroit's playoff run are a credit to him and the defensive coaching staff for developing and giving an opportunity to another young player. Melifonwu could have a really big role for this defense right from the start in 2024.