Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht, director of player personnel John Spyteck and director of college scouting Mike Biehl have spent the fall and winter scouting prospects for the 2017 NFL Draft where Tampa Bay has the 19th overall pick. The focus needs to be making Dirk Koetter’s offense more explosive and finding more weapons for quarterback Jameis Winston.
The suspension of oft-injured starting running back Doug Martin and the injury-prone status of Charles Sims suddenly makes the running back position an area of need, in addition to wide receiver where the team needs to add more big-play ability outside of Mike Evans new free agent addition DeSean Jackson. Tampa Bay could also use another receiving tight end to pair with Cameron Brate.
While the offensive line is a concern for many Bucs fans, this year’s draft class is not strong at tackle, guard or center, and PewterReport.com doesn’t have Licht taking a lineman due to the fact that he’s selected four – guard Kevin Pamphile in 2014, tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet in 2015 and guard-tackle Caleb Benenoch in 2016 – in the last three drafts. That may change in future mock drafts as the Bucs need a right tackle to replace aging veteran Gosder Cherilus and eventually starter Demar Dotson, yet the team has three in-house candidates in Pamphile, Benenoch and Leonard Wester.
Tampa Bay’s defense could use help at safety, defensive end and possibly cornerback and defensive tackle, but it will be challenging to fill all of those holes in the 2017 draft given the needs on offense. Brent Grimes will be 34 next season, and the Bucs have cut overpaid cornerback Alterraun Verner. The Bucs signed two safeties in Chris Conte and J.J. Wilcox, and have Keith Tandy as a starting-caliber player, too. The Bucs re-signed defensive end Will Gholston and added defensive tackle Chris Baker in free agency to bolster Tampa Bay’s defensive line.
PewterReport.com offers up its fourth edition of the Bucs’ round-by-round draft projection in 2017, focusing mostly on adding skill position players for Tampa Bay’s offense. PewterReport.com’s 2017 Bucs 7-Round Mock Draft is sponsored by Holliday Karatinos Law Firm – the official personal injury attorney for PewterReport.com. Call attorney Jim Holliday for a free consultation at (813) 868-1887 or visit them on the web at HelpingInjuredPeople.com
Round 1: UConn FS Obi Melifonwu – 6-4, 224 – 4.4 – Senior Previous Pick: Miami TE David Njoku
Drafting a big safety in the first round – for the Buccaneers?
Listen to the collective groan from Tampa Bay fans as nightmares of Sabby Piscitelli, a second-round pick in 2007, and Mark Barron, a first-round pick in 2012, flash through their heads.
But Melifonwu is different. He’s an athletic freak that blew up the NFL Scouting Combine with a blistering time of 4.4 in the 40-yard dash, a ridiculous 11-foot, 9-inch broad jump and a sky-high 44-inch vertical that put him into the first round discussion. But Melifonwu is no Taylor Mays, a similar-sized 6-foot-4, 238-pound safety, who like Piscitelli, was more of an athlete than a football player.
Melifonwu isn’t as instinctive as the late Sean Taylor, nor is he the bone-jarring hitter that 6-foot-3, 232-pound Kam Chancellor is in Seattle, but he has more splash-play potential than 6-foot-4, 225-pound Cincinnati safety George Iloka does. There is a place for big safeties in the NFL, and Melifonwu’s game is similar to that of 6-foot-2, 218-pound Minnesota Pro Bowl safety Harrison Smith.
Don’t believe it? Ask former UConn head coach Bob Diaco, who coached Smith when he was the former defensive coordinator at Notre Dame.
“Obi is the best safety in America,” said Diaco. “This is a special, special young man, he will be either ‘the’ or ‘one of the’ top players evaluated in the NFL. He is an absolute spectacular safety prospect. I have coached several safeties in the NFL, they are Pro Bowl safeties and he is absolutely in that conversation and in some case his tangible traits are even higher.”
Former Temple head coach Matt Rhule saw the damage Melifonwu can do as he recorded a pair of end zone interceptions against the Owls last year.
“He has the size and he is playing in a tremendous system like Bob’s where they put a lot of pressure on the safeties, they have to be run support defenders, they have to be pass defenders,” Rhule said. “I think he has the ability to come down in the box, he can play man to man. I think he is a complete safety.”
Melifonwu went out with a bang in his last game with the Huskies, notching 24 tackles, which tied the UConn single-game record. He had seven games with double-digit tackles as a senior and finished 2016 with 118 tackles, four interceptions, three pass breakups and a fumble recovery. In his UConn career, Melifonwu had 349 tackles, 16 pass breakups, 11 tackles for loss, eight interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
Despite the signing of safety J.J. Wilcox in free agency, the overall safety position could use some playmaking ability, added size and more speed. Melifonwu has all three and wouldn’t be pressured into a starting role right away due to the veterans on the Bucs roster at the position, although the Huskies star was a four-year starter and recorded an interception and 11 tackles in his first game as a redshirt freshman.
Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Mike Smith likes to match his safeties up in man coverage and also play a Quarters defensive scheme in addition to some Cover 1 and Cover 3. That’s exactly what Melifonwu played at UConn.
“My first three years I played a lot of field safety where I was covering slots, and then just this past year I played in the box a lot and I played in the post at [free safety]. I feel comfortable doing both. I don’t have a preference. I’m versatile. Whether it be the post, the boundary, playing the box, covering slots, even covering receivers I feel like I can play.”
Some teams are even looking at Melifonwu as a big cornerback like Washington’s Kevin King, who is also on Tampa Bay’s radar, to play a Richard Sherman-type role. Melifonwu is well versed in coverage, and Bucs safeties coach Brett Maxie went up to Hartford, Conn. to meet with him and give him a private workout. The Bucs were also present at his pro day where he shined.
“My first three years at safety I was in the slot playing press coverage, mainly on third down,” Melifonwu said. “Being able to have range and cover longer receivers and tight ends that’s been something that’s been beneficial. You have taller guys like Rob Gronkowski, guys like Richard Rodgers – there has definitely been a transformation at tight end and with taller receivers. I’m someone that can help a lot of teams.”
Just a reminder that the Falcons have a pair of 6-foot-3 receivers in Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, the Saints have 6-foot-6 tight end Coby Fleener, in addition to 6-foot-6 receiver Brandon Coleman and 6-foot-3 receiver Michael Thomas, while the Panthers have 6-foot-5 tight end Greg Olsen along with 6-foot-5 receiver Kelvin Benjamin and 6-foot-4 receiver Devin Funchess. The NFC South is loaded with big targets and the Bucs could stand to get bigger in the secondary to match up.
And with Smith liking to match his safeties in the slot against receivers in man coverage on occasion, it helps to have a fast, rangy defensive back that can keep up. Remember when Conte got burned by Jaron Brown in Arizona on a touchdown bomb in Week 2, or when he got beat by Oakland’s Amari Cooper for a touchdown in Week 8? That’s where Melifonwu can shine for Tampa Bay.
“I’m a hard worker,” Melifonwu said. “I’m a dependable guy. I’m a guy that can fit a lot of roles. I’m a guy that they can count. I’m very versatile.”
UConn doesn’t quite have the reputation that LSU has in terms of being “DB U,” but like Washington, it’s recently putting a lot of defensive backs into the NFL with the likes of former first-round cornerback Byron Jones, in addition to Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz over the past three years. Melifonwu is the latest from UConn’s DB pipeline and he becomes a force in Tampa Bay either at No. 19 or if the Bucs trade a few spots back to select him.
Click below to view Tampa Bay’s second-round pick in 2017.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: email@example.com