Florida defensive back Matt Elam intercepts a pass during the… (Melina Vastola-USA TODAY…)
I usually roll my eyes when I hear someone say that a player "plays like a Raven." But in the case of Florida safety Matt Elam, the team’s first-round pick, I can’t help but nod my head. It sounds as if the Ravens agree.
“I started to watch Matt, and I’ve never been so excited. It was fun watching him play,” general manager Ozzie Newsome said late, late Thursday night. “It’s been a long time. Watch play after play on tape, and you just go, ‘Wow. Oh, wow.’ … The way he played on tape is the way that you have to play in the AFC North.”
At 5-foot-10, Elam is a little shorter than what you would like at the safety position, but he runs fast, hits hard and loves football, according to Newsome. He is versatile, too, which comes in handy in today’s NFL, where running backs and tight ends get flexed out and safeties are often asked to run with them in man coverage.
"I just feel like my size doesn't matter,” Elam, who turns 22 in September, said on a conference call. “I'm a great competitor, flying around. I'm hitting guys bigger than me. Size really doesn't matter. I feel like you turn on the film and it shows it all."
The Ravens clearly felt that it was time for a change at the safety position, saying goodbye to a future Hall-of-Famer in Ed Reed and a sometimes-undisciplined big hitter in Bernard Pollard.
In Elam and free-agent addition Michael Huff, the Ravens have two rangy safeties who are interchangeable on the back end.
Head coach John Harbaugh said Elam was the player he wanted. Assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said that Elam is “an infectious player on the playing field” who is tough, aggressive and capable of playing high coverage, low coverage and in the slot. Director of college scouting Joe Hortiz said he is a “versatile kid” and “as tough as they come.”
Elam, whose older brother Abram plays in the NFL, totaled 176 tackles in his Florida career, including 24 tackles for a loss and five sacks. He also picked off six passes, including four during his senior year.
The tackles Elam didn’t miss are just as significant. Newsome said he’s one of the “better tacklers” he has seen at the position.
The Ravens raved about Elam's tackling after the first round ended, and that’s significant because the defense uncharacteristically missed a lot of tackles last season, particularly at the safety position. Reed missed a team-high 21 tackles last season, including the postseason, according to Pro Football Focus. Pollard was right behind him with 15 missed tackles, and he missed three games.
It will be interesting to see how the Ravens put the versatile safety to use. I can see him thumping running backs, blitzing quarterbacks, and trying to hang with taller tight ends and shifty slot receivers in some situations.
Whatever Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Dean Pees ask him to do, he plans to carry on the tradition Reed left behind.
"I think I'll bring a lot of competitiveness, a lot of energy to a great defense,” he said. “I'm so excited to have the opportunity to come in with a great player like Ed Reed that was back there before."