I’m not sure there could be a bigger moment for a young player than what Obi Melifownu is facing this week. To put it together is rather breathtaking. Let’s try.
1. He’s a rookie who’s played 7 NFL snaps
Coming off injured reserve two weeks ago, Melifownu saw his first NFL action in Miami in which he received 7 snaps. After the bye week, he will likely receive a lot more snaps. The time is now to see what the Raiders have in their rookie second rounder.
“Obi’s a fun character,” Raiders defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr said Thursday. “He’s long and I think if you put together your ultimate football player, I mean, if you stand next to that guy, you look at him from afar, he looks perfect. He’s long and fast and has the right attitude, he’s really smart, he loves ball, loves practice and when he’s in the meeting room he wants to see all the film. He does all that stuff, so now ‘hey, guy, can you carry that over to the field?’ That’s kind of where we are now. Continue growing, continue learning, you look great, now let’s make that into playing great.”
2. He is tasked with stopping the best tight end in the NFL
Rob Gronkowski will be his assignment. He of three All Pro teams and 4 Pro Bowls who averages 69.6 yards per game and 73 touchdowns in 96 career games. He who stands at 6-6, 265 pounds.
“He’s big, usually bigger than everybody else, so that kinda helps,” Norton said of Gronkowski. “And he combines that with good talents. He wants the ball and he’s the type of guy that you give him the ball, the ball comes near him, he’s gonna catch it, he’s gonna make plays. So, you combine the ability with the size, with the attitude and the playmaking abilities, and . . . you have the makings of a good football player.”
Stopping Gronk is THE primary job Melifonwu will have Sunday.
“That’s kind of the idea when we brought Obi in,” Norton continued. “He’s the guy that’s long, fast, has the ability to match up with the bigger, longer tight ends. . . so we’re expecting him to step up. This is the World Champions, the guys who have been doing it really well for a long time, so Obi is gonna get introduced at a high level. But Obi is very confident. He’s been pretty good at what he’s been able to do for a long time. So we’re expecting him to play at a high level and accept the challenge.”
Accepting the challenge and performing it well are two very different things. Melifonwu has had at least a couple weeks to study and think about how he will go about defending Gronk.
“I feel like a lot of people try to out-physical him,” Melifonwu said this week. “Just play to your strengths. He’s a big, physical guy with strong hands, so it’s definitely gonna be tough, but it’s a match-up that’s gonna be fun.”
Oh, and the Patriots brought back Martellus Bennett last week too, which means more two tight end sets. Even if Melifonwu excels in his duties, there’s only one of him.
3. He’s facing the team he was a fan of growing up.
“Growing up in Massachusetts, I mean that was the team I definitely cheered for so it’s an exciting opportunity to play against them.”
Obi probably knows better than to mention Gronk or Tom Brady or any current Patriots players as his favorites growing up. But consider the UConn star has only been in the NFL for a few months and Gronk has been with the Patriots since 2010 when Obi was 16 years old.
Brady first led the Patriots to their Super Bowl win* in 2001 — when Obi was 7 — and had won* three Super Bowls by the time Obi was 10 years of age. Now he will line up across from the players he grew up idolizing. That’s huge.
4. The Raiders are clinging to playoff hopes.
Few, if any, honestly believe the Raiders will pull out this win. They’re 4-5 going up against the 7-2 Patriots.
With the league’s top offense, and bottom defense it’s obvious how the Patriots got here. The Raiders got here with sputtering and inconsistency on offense and a consistently poor defense. That means a lot of things have to go right for them in this one to lead out a second half in which there is likely only room for one loss to keep their playoff hopes alive.
5. Depleted Raiders secondary
Top pick Gareon Conley is now on IR. He was the most important offseason acquisition for this defense. Next most important is Melifonwu, taken in the second round.
David Amerson may not play again this week with a foot injury. This leaves just three corners on the roster. This was the case against the Dolphins and the only move the Raiders made was the activate Melifonwu. They still haven’t added anyone, which naturally suggests Melifonwu is the team’s dime back, adding increased duties to his plate.
6. The game is in front of 87,000 fans in another country
International games are crazy. Games in Mexico City are REALLY crazy. This game will have a large TV viewing audience and will be in front of 87K fans on an international stage. The place will be buzzing, and that will remain so throughout should the Raiders stay in it or pull ahead late. Melifonwu will undoubtedly feel the energy and how he responds will be key.