As training camp begins, Ravens' chances of Super Bowl repeat could rely on rookies

Ravens could open season with four rookie starters

  • Safety Matt Elam, the Ravens' first-round pick this year, is introduced to fans at the team's spring football festival in April. Elam is among a handful of rookies expected to play key roles for the Ravens this season.
Safety Matt Elam, the Ravens' first-round pick this year,… (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore…)
July 21, 2013|By Aaron Wilson | The Baltimore Sun

As the Ravens built their draft class in April, they did so with the knowledge that several rookies probably would need to contribute immediately.

When the team opens training camp at team headquarters this week — and when it begins the defense of its Super Bowl championship against the Denver Broncos in the regular-season opener Sept. 5 — it likely will follow that plug-and-play mentality.

The Ravens never have started four rookies to begin the season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, but that could change this year.

Safety Matt Elam, inside linebacker Arthur Brown, defensive tackle Brandon Williams and fullback Kyle Juszczyk are top candidates to start because of their talent, opportunity and the way they fit the Ravens' schemes.

“That's indicative of the intelligence and philosophy and confidence the Ravens have in their scouting staff,” said ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, a former director of pro personnel for the Philadelphia Eagles and Washington Redskins. “They're always setting the bar because they find guys who are right for what they want to do. They know these kind of things, and that's why they're always out in front.”

Getting younger at safety

The Ravens expect Elam, whom they selected with the final pick of the first round, to compete with veteran James Ihedigbo at strong safety and replace Bernard Pollard, whom the team cut in March.

At 5 feet 10, 210 pounds, Elam is a bit undersized for the position, but the former University of Florida consensus All-American has an aggressive, hard-hitting style and draws high marks for his range.

"I don't think he'll have much problem getting acclimated because he's a smart kid, a real hard worker who's a naturally instinctive football player that should be able to step in and start," said Russ Lande, a former Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Rams scout who's the scouting director for the Montreal Alouettes. "He will be an excellent run defender and tackler because he's so willing to hit and knock guys' heads off. Coverage is the weaker side of his game because he's a little stiff and he's not a huge guy. I don't see him getting exposed often and he should be a solid, productive guy like Bernard Pollard right away."

Elam recorded 176 career tackles, 24 for losses, six interceptions and two forced fumbles in three seasons for the Gators.

During offseason practices, Elam lined up at several positions and appeared comfortable with no hesitation.

“Matt Elam fits the Ravens' mentality,” said Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, a former Ravens executive and Browns general manager. “He's got the same kind of temperament that they really look for in their defensive players.”

The Ravens would like Elam to be interchangeable with free safety Michael Huff.

"The interesting thing about Matt is he's one of those guys who's so versatile, playing strong safety, free safety and nickel," Riddick said. "Combining him with Michael Huff will make Baltimore a very dangerous defense that can dictate to offenses what they do. Baltimore won't have to substitute because of Elam's coverage ability and how he can perform in base defenses.

"I went to his workout at Florida, and I thought he had as good a workout as I've seen for a defensive back: very quick, very athletic, caught the ball really well. The only knock on him is his height, so the questions is how he'll do when he goes up against big tight ends like Ed Dickson and Dennis Pitta. He's a great pick for where they got him."

With Ray Lewis retiring and Dannell Ellerbe signing with the Miami Dolphins, the Ravens are in flux at inside linebacker this season. They're banking on Brown's injecting athleticism — and, eventually, leadership — into the defense.

Speed at linebacker

Brown doesn't have ideal size at 6-0, 241pounds for an inside linebacker, but the second-round draft pick's speed rivals that of running backs such as his brother, Philadelphia Eagles backup Bryce Brown.

The former Kansas State All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year is considered a true sideline-to-sideline linebacker, and has drawn high marks for his maturity and readiness to play immediately.

“Kansas State guys come to the NFL prepared and mature like Arthur, knowing how to study and how to practice, and catch on quickly,” former Denver Broncos general manager Ted Sundquist said. “Arthur is a physical, compact, downhill guy who can run. They can plug him into their 3-4 scheme and turn him loose, where he can maximize his athletic skill early on.”

A two-time captain for the Wildcats, Brown had 201 tackles over the past two seasons. He has run the 40-yard dash in the 4.5 range.

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