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What's next for Melifonwu after breakout third season?

Ifeatu Melifonwu earned a starting role at safety Week 14 last season in Chicago and really never looked back.

He ended up starting the last five games of the regular season and Detroit's three playoff games and was terrific over that stretch, recording five sacks (including playoffs), 35 tackles, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble and two interceptions, including the game-clincher Week 16 in Minnesota that helped the Lions win their first division title in 30 years.

Melifonwu was one of just three defensive backs in the NFL to produce at least 3.0 sacks and two interceptions during the regular season last year (Antoine Winfield Jr. & Kyle Hamilton).

It's been a long journey for Melifonwu as an oft-injured cornerback drafted in the third round in 2021 before transitioning to safety midway through the 2022 season. He settled in nicely to that role and played a key factor in Detroit's run to the NFC Championship Game last season.

That opportunity to start and be an impact player has Melifonwu excited for what a starting role heading into the 2024 season could mean for him.

"I feel like toward the end of (last) season I was really comfortable," Melifonwu said this week. "I feel like that just carried over. If you ask me last OTAs vs. this OTAs it's a big difference. End of last season kind of just carried over to this season."

That's certainly good news for a Detroit secondary that expects to be much better in 2024, but is still trying to figure out who will be in what roles. The competition both at cornerback and safety is expected to ramp up come training camp.

It's why getting that opportunity to start the last five games of the season and the playoff run last year was so big for the versatile 6-foot-3 safety.

"Yeah, any time you're able to get some real game experience at the position, which was somewhat new for him, it really is, it only helps you," Lions head coach Dan Campbell said of Melifonwu during this week's mandatory minicamp in Allen Park. "And so, there is some growth that took place for him. He made some plays for us just as a pressure player. He came up with some huge plays – Minnesota, that was a huge play at the end of that game, and so now you're trying to continue to help him grow and get him a little bit better at it."

Melifonwu said the opportunity to play and make plays last season has really slowed the game down for him this spring. He gives checks quicker and gets everyone lined up and on the same page. Instead of this time last year when he was focused more on his responsibility and what he had to do.

View photos from Day 3 of Detroit Lions minicamp on Thursday, June 6, 2024 in Allen Park, Mich.

He was a key playmaker for Aaron Glenn's defense down the stretch and if he can pick up where he left off that will be big for this defense starting alongside fellow safety Kerby Joseph.

"I'm very critical of myself," Melifonwu said when asked how he builds on the success he had at the end of last year. "I watched tape of last year and I feel there were still plays I left out (on the field).

"I'm just in the middle of my progression. I'm just trying to get better and I can't be complacent with what I did last year because there's just a lot more room to grow and I'm just trying to get better."

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