There are a lot of battles in Oakland Raiders training camp that will be exciting to see. One I’m particularly interested in is tight end Jared Cook vs strong safety Obi Melifonwu.
Cook is another one of those matchup nightmares at the tight end position in the NFL these days. The former high-jumper is 6’5”, 255 pounds with 4.49 40 speed and a 41-inch vertical leap. So he’s fast enough to run away from most linebackers, big enough to catch the ball over cornerbacks and has the hops to go up and get one over anyone.
But Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers found very little use for Cook in 2016. So he went to Oakland and led the Raiders in receiving while the receivers dropped passes in 2017. This year, he’s looking to do even more in his second year with QB Derek Carr.
Strong safety Melifonwu was picked in the second round by the Raiders last year to cover matchup nightmare tight ends. He’s 6’4”, 230 pounds and has a 44-inch vertical leap to go with his 4.4 40. And to top it all off, he was once a CB so the feet and the hips are there. His combination of size, speed and coverage skills is made to order for athletic tight ends.
But Melifonwu didn’t have much of a rookie year to see what he can do because of injuries. Those injuries seemed to leak into this offseason and head coach Jon Gruden didn’t sound too thrilled about it.
“He doesn’t look ready to roll yet,” Gruden said at the Raiders offseason program. “I don’t let anybody practice without being ready to go physically, but he doesn’t look like he’s 100 percent. I haven’t seen much of Obi except in the training room.”
Gruden was obviously frustrated because he wants to see what Melifonwu has going into the season. But it looks like the Gruden will get that chance as he sounded much better about Melifonwu three weeks later in the offseason program.
“Obi is doing more. Yeah, he is. He’s out there more,” Gruden said. “He’s getting close to being all the way back. He and (Gareon) Conley both have had some dark, quiet moments with the trainer. I think his confidence is growing. I saw him pull the trigger and really get off the hash and move the other day. You see the 4.4 speed that is talked about. He has a lot of ground to make up. He’s missed a lot of work. It’s competitive back there.”
A big part of that competition is how well he and the other SSs cover Cook, one of the better receiving TEs in the NFL today, in training camp. If Melifonwu can give Cook fits in camp, it will show he’s healthy and up to the task of covering TEs as well as increase his chances of starting in 2018. They could then put him on guys like Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs, whom they’ll see twice a year, for the foreseeable future.
The Chiefs have a lot of weapons over there on that offense and taking away Kelce, one of their main ones, would be big. Plus it would also be a feather in the cap for the Raiders’ 2017 draft as 1st-round pick Gareon Conley is also trying to prove his worth in 2018.