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Move The Sticks notebook: Melifonwu rising into Round 1 range

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  • By Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks NFL.com
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Editor's note: NFL.com analysts and former NFL scouts Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks of the Move The Sticks Podcast share some of their scouting notes, including:

» A CB who's rising into first-round territory
» Jeremiah's take on the sweet spot of the 2017 NFL Draft
» A potential small-school gem you should get to know

But first, we kick off this week's notebook with Brooks' take on the buzz around one of the NFL Scouting Combine's top performers.

It's easy to fall in love with big, athletic safeties with long arms, blazing speed and solid ball skills. That's why scouts could push Connecticut's Obi Melifonwu into the bottom of the first round by the end of the pre-draft process.

Now, I know that might sound crazy based on his relatively low profile prior to the NFL Scouting Combine, but the four-year starter continues to check all of the boxes on the way to the draft.

Measuring 6-foot-4, 224 pounds with 32.5-inch arms, Melifonwu is the long, rangy athlete that every defensive coach and scout covets at the position. He complements his extraordinary size with outstanding speed (4.40 40-yard dash) and explosive leaping ability (44-inch vertical jump; 11-9 broad jump). Melifonwu exhibited above-average agility and change-of-direction quickness in position drills at the combine.

After studying the tape, I believe Melifonwu is more than a "HWS" (height-weight-speed) monster on the turf. He's an active box defender with outstanding instincts, awareness and a nose for the ball. Melifonwu is a tackling machine who's capable of displaying "thump" or wrap-up skills in the hole. He rarely misses runners in the open field and his secure tackling skills will make him a coveted player in defensive meeting rooms around the league.

Looking at his career resume, it's not a coincidence that his tackling production has steadily improved over his four years as a starter (70 in 2013, 75 in 2014, 88 in 2015, 118 in 2016). He not only has a knack for finding the ball but he takes good angles and flashes some explosiveness upon contact. Melifonwu's superb tackling places him ahead of some prospects who lack the discipline, courage and toughness to hit runners squarely in the chest.

In coverage, Melifonwu exhibits outstanding instincts and range as a deep defender. He is capable of getting to the boundary from the hash in two-deep zones and shows numbers-to-numbers range as a deep-middle defender. Although he is best suited to play as a robber in a single-high defense or in "Quarters", Melifonwu has enough athleticism and versatility to be an impact player on the second level. With the long, rangy defender also showing nice hands and adequate ball skills (10 career interceptions), the UConn standout has a chance to be a solid starter from Day 1.

"I think he's a top-40 player," said an AFC college scouting director. "I know he has some cornerback skills, but I would leave him at safety and let him grow at the position."

I agree with that assessment, but I would even suggest that Melifonwu should be considered a borderline first-round talent based on his size, production, and skills. He has all of the physical tools that teams covet in an enforcer between the hashes and I can see him thriving in a Kam Chancellor-like role as a pro. Considering how the perennial Pro Bowl safety has made an impact in the Legion of Boom, Melifonwu should receive high marks for his long-term potential at the position. -- Bucky Brooks

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Melifonwu not only DB riser: Since returning from the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this week, I've had several conversations with personnel executives and area scouts. It's always fascinating to find out which players are generating the most buzz as a result of their combine performance. One player who kept coming up in these conversations --Washington cornerback Kevin King.

King has outstanding size and he ran much faster than evaluators expected. He also had an outstanding field workout, displaying excellent quickness and change-of-direction skills. Heading into the combine, I had King just outside my list of the draft's top 50 players, but he clearly established himself as a top-40 selection with his performance in Indianapolis. This draft is loaded with talented cornerbacks, but his combination of size, length, ball skills and speed could make him a late-first-round pick. -- Daniel Jeremiah

* * *

Draft's sweet spot: The first round of the upcoming draft is going to feature several future Pro Bowlers. However, the sweet spot of this draft is actually in the second and third rounds. I can't recall a better year to own multiple selections between picks 33 and 107. In my opinion, there is very little separation from a player you can find at pick 20 vs. the player you can find at pick 60. A player like UCLA cornerback Fabian Moreau would be a no-brainer first-round pick in most years, but he's likely to land in the second round in this talented draft class. For those picking outside the top 5, this is the perfect year to trade down and accumulate extra picks in the second and third rounds. -- Daniel Jeremiah

* * *

Combine's biggest surprise: Scouts aren't supposed to raise or lower grades for a prospect based on his NFL Scouting Combine performance, but that certainly doesn't stop the performance from having an impact on the evaluator's projections in pre-draft meetings. With that in mind, I'm hearing that Kansas State DE Jordan Willis could enjoy a bounce in meetings based on his spectacular showing in Indianapolis.

The 6-foot-4, 255-pound defender shocked scouts with his impressive numbers in the athletic testing portion of the event. Willis blazed a 4.53-second 40-yard dash and posted outstanding marks in the vertical jump (39 inches) and broad jump (10-5). He scooted around the three-cone drill in 6.85 seconds and blitzed the short shuttle in 4.28 seconds. As the group leader in four of those five drills (he posted the best marks in the 40, vertical jump, three cone and 20-yard shuttle), Willis displayed the kind of jaw-dropping explosiveness and athleticism that makes coaches salivate in meetings. In fact, the performance was so shocking that scouts familiar with Willis were at a loss for words when asked to describe how work on the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium.

"I definitely didn't see that coming," said an AFC national scout. "He plays hard on tape and makes a few splash plays, but I didn't see an explosive athlete. I'm going to need to check out the tape again to see if I missed something when I checked him out during the fall."

When I studied Willis' game film following the combine, I thought he was a junkyard dog with a non-stop motor and gritty demeanor. He outworked his opponents off the edge and collected his sacks off sheer hustle and determination. As a pass rusher, he is best described as a power player with the bull rush and butt-and-jerk as his preferred moves. He flashes some explosiveness off the ball, but I wasn't in love with his get off because he frequently appeared late off the ball. Against the run, he gave maximum effort and showed enough strength to hold the point at the line of scrimmage. Yet, I didn't see him as a dominant or disruptive player off the edge.

2017 NFL DRAFT

Overall, I thought he was a productive player who wins with tremendous effort and hustle off the edge. While I like his potential as a contributor as part of a rotation, I see him as a developmental prospect capable of growing into a spot-starter role at the next level. This would make him a Day 3 (Rounds 4-7) candidate on my grading scale, but I could certainly see a team overvaluing the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year based on his production (11.5 sacks in 2016; 26 career sacks) and impressive athletic performance at the combine. We'll see if he catches the buzz over the next few weeks as one of the late risers up the charts. -- Bucky Brooks

* * *

Small-school WR to remember: The combine is a great opportunity for small-school players to show they belong with the players from perennial powerhouse programs like Alabama and Michigan. That's exactly what Marian University wide receiver Krishawn Hogan did during his testing and on-field workout in Indianapolis.

Hogan measured in at 6-foot-3, 222 pounds and recorded a 4.56-second 40-yard dash. He caught the ball effortlessly and he ran clean, crisp routes. He is a fun player to watch on tape. The Marian quarterback throws him the ball repeatedly until they get inside the 10-yard line. That's when Hogan lines up in the Wildcat formation and scores on a variety of quarterback runs. Scouts like to see small-school players dominate on tape, and that's exactly what Hogan did in every game I studied. After a strong combine performance, I believe he has a chance to be selected as high as the fourth round. -- Daniel Jeremiah

Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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