Injuries put a damper on Ifeatu Melifonwu's first two seasons, and another injury limited his usage for a chunk of this season. Add in a position change between his first and second season, and we call that a slow start to career.
But Melifonwu, fully healthy, was put into the starting lineup in Week 14 in place of Tracy Walker and he was immediately excellent. The following week he showed his prowess as a blitzer with one sack. The week after that, he had two sacks and an interception on his way to winning NFC Defensive Player of the Week. In Week 17, Melifonwu had another interception.
Melifonwu continued to be impactful in the playoffs. He had 1.5 sacks in the Divisional Round and another half-sack in the NFC Championship Game. He led the team with nine tackles in the Divisional Round win over Tampa Bay.
The Lions went to a three-man safety rotation when C.J. Gardner returned from a torn pectoral in Week 18, but Melfonwu had 72, 84 and 62 percent snap shares in the three postseason games.
Ifeatu Melifonwu in line for a full-on breakout next season
Melifonwu's emergence has rendered Walker, a former team captain, expendable this offseason. There may even be a question about re-signing Gardner-Johnson at this point, based on Melifonwu's emergence down the stretch. What could do over a full, healthy season as a starter? That's an exciting prospect for the Lions and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, and a scary prospect for opposing offenses they'll face next season.
Along that line, Pro Football Focus has tabbed Melifonwu as their early 2024 breakout candidate for the Lions.
"Melifonwu, much like a few others previously mentioned, did not get a full-time starting gig until later in the year, but once he did, he flashed a lot of potential as a young player on the verge of breaking out. Melifonwu took over for Tracy Walker as the Lions’ starting safety in Week 14, and from that point on, including the playoffs (through the divisional round), he was the seventh-highest graded safety in the league (80.3)."
Over eight total games from Week 14 through the NFC Championship Game, Melifonwu had five sacks, 42 total tackles, four tackles for loss, two interceptions, seven pass breakups, eight quarterback hits and a 79.1 overall grade from Pro Football Focus. Pretty darn good, to put it mildly.
Melifonwu, the 101st overall pick in 2021, carries the distinction of being the first draft pick the Lions recouped from the Matthew Stafford trade. That also means he's now going into the final year of his rookie contract, and headed for the opportunity to have a full-fledged breakout next season.