The Obi-KJ pairing is inevitable. Veteran ballhawk and opportunist Reggie Nelson is the elder statesman (33 years old) of the defensive backfield and should remain starter for yet another season, but make no mistake, the Oakland Raiders future starting safeties will be Karl Joseph and Obi Melifonwu.
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Looking at measurable alone, Joseph and Melifonwu are two vastly different players. The former stands at 5-foot-10 and weighs 210 pounds while the latter towers at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds. This is an interesting case of size being a little misleading.
Despite his smaller stature, Joseph is a supremely talented deliverer of devastation. He’s a hitman, no doubt about it. When he lays a lick, it’s Jack Tatumesque. No one in the secondary can rattle bones like the 2016 first-round pick can. Melifonwu, despite his Adonis-like physique, isn’t a jack-you-up type. He’s more of a wrap-up tackler. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Because where the two are similar is coverage and takeaways.
Both Joseph and Melifonwu have the football instincts and wheels to cover vast amounts of ground in the backend. Not only can they go sideline-to-sideline, they can track and make a play on the ball in flight to contest or pick off the pass. This is something Nelson excels in, although his age has sapped some of the speed he used to exhibit as a younger player.
Why harp on coverage skill if both can do it well? It gives the Raiders the flexibility to swap Joseph and Melifonwu from free to strong safety – Oakland runs a scheme where safeties are interchangeable – or the team can permanently place Joseph on the strong side due to his superiority in the smackdown department. This would free up Melifonwu on the free side to cover tight ends the Raiders defense has shown occasion to forget about.
Yet, it may be difficult to keep the second-round pick off the field. Especially if Melifonwu progresses in this off and preseason.
“Athletically, he’s very blessed. He has height, weight and speed that you look for,” Raiders Head Coach Jack Del Rio said. “Athleticism, changing direction and then he’ll come up and hit you.”
An interesting scenario: The trio of Nelson, Joseph and Melifonwu on the field at the same time, in perhaps a 4-2-5 scheme.