The Raiders have heavily invested in their safety unit spending a first round pick on Karl Joseph back in 2016, and then selecting Obi Melifonwu in the second round one year later. With both players finally healthy, Jon Gruden and his staff are hoping they can shore up a position that has underperformed for years.
There are a lot of questions with regard to the safety position for the Raiders. The biggest question of all is where Joseph and Melifonwu should play to best utilize their skills.
Known for his fearlessness and ability to deliver a big hit, the former first round pick is arguably the Raiders best tackler not named Khalil Mack. Joseph’s impact against the run can make it easy to forget his ball-hawking ability in pass coverage.
As a four-year starter at West Virginia, he excelled at free safety, recording nine career interceptions. By his senior season, Joseph had become one of the best safeties in the nation. Through four games, the First-Team All-Big 12 safety led the FBS with five interceptions before missing the rest of the year to a knee injury.
With Reggie Nelson brought onboard as the free safety, the Raiders put Joseph at strong safety, where he has played the past two seasons. And while he holds his own in the box, Joseph doesn’t see the same amount of opportunities in pass coverage as he would at free safety. Playing Joseph at strong safety also presents the problem of his often being matched up with tight ends who are nearly a foot taller than him.
It took the Silver & Black over 11 weeks to record their first interception this past season. Moving Joseph back to his natural position at free safety would increase turnovers as the Raiders would be taking full advantage of his coverage skills and instincts. Much like Seahawks safety Earl Thomas, the third-year veteran Joseph can play in the box, but he is best utilized in the back-end of the secondary.
As a four-year starter at UConn, Melifonwu also played a majority of his snaps at free safety, finishing his career with eight interceptions and 16 passes defended. But coming out of college, it was his elite athleticism and tackling ability for which he was known, rather than his pass coverage.
He has the versatility to play both safety positions, and even potentially nickel corner with some practice reps there. Melifonwu was notoriously asked to play cornerback for the first time in his second game back against the New England Patriots, and the result was Brandin Cooks flying past him for a 64-yard touchdown.
That’s on the coaching staff for playing Melifonwu at an unfamiliar position, against arguably the greatest quarterback and head coach duo in NFL History.
While he may be capable of playing cornerback, Melifonwu would be best utilized at strong safety in the box. This would help mask his deficiencies and lack of instincts in pass coverage, and allow him to thrive as a run defender. Even more importantly, it would match him up against tight ends in man coverage; a role the Raiders had envisioned for him in the first place.
This is where Melifonwu’s true value lies, as tight ends have scorched the Raiders for over a decade. Facing Travis Kelce and Hunter Henry twice a season in the AFC West, Oakland desperately needs a defender that can erase them from the offensive game plan. The second-year safety has the size and athleticism to blanket tight ends, and take away the mismatch that offenses consistently take advantage of against the Raiders.
The potential of the combination of Karl Joseph and Obi Melifonwu should excite Raider Nation. If both players are utilized correctly, they have a chance to become one of the more dynamic young duos in the NFL.