When the Baltimore Ravens released veteran strong safety Bernard Pollard in March, finding his replacement became one of the team’s priorities heading into the draft.
The team wasted no time filling that void, selecting Florida’s Matt Elam with the 32nd pick in the first round. The heavy-hitting, athletic safety is a near clone of Pollard.
He has the same playing style, and in terms of strengths and weaknesses, they’re quite similar.
Elam, however, is a player who has exceptional range in run defense and brings a high-speed mentality to a defense.
Where he’s behind the pack for NFL safeties is in coverage. Elam can get caught sleeping in coverage and his height (or lack thereof) can often get the best of him. But if the Ravens are truly trying to find a Pollard replacement, then Elam is the guy.
Pollard, like Elam, can often be caught a step behind in coverage. It’s likely that the Ravens knew that when they drafted Elam, and they’ll use him accordingly. Elam will make a living inside the box in the NFL. He isn’t incapable of covering, but if the Ravens want to get the most out of him, they should let him roam the middle of the field and be an enforcer in run defense, where his skills are best utilized.
Let’s take a look at Elam’s ability and instincts in run defense and the short passing game first.
In a 2011 game against Auburn, Elam is lined up in the slot.
After covering the receiver, he quickly looks up to notice that the play is a designed swing pass toward his side.
He reacts to the play, gets away from the blocker and breaks toward the ball carrier with a full head of steam.
He flies toward the running back, wraps him up and easily throws him down for nearly no gain.
This play is a prime example of Elam’s ability to quickly identify the play and react. His fast closing speed allows him to get to the ball carrier before he can even turn up field.
Another play that displays Elam’s quick reaction time and downfield speed is from the LSU game in 2012.
He begins the play lined up as the back-end safety.
The play is a designed run to the left and Elam quickly reacts and begins to break toward the ball carrier.
Despite the fact that he had about 15 yards to cover, Elam still gets to the running back in time to wrap him up and tackle him for just a one-yard gain.
The two plays above are prime examples of how Elam can be utilized as a downfield defender who uses his quick closing speed in the run game. While he may line up along the back end of the defense to begin the play, he is capable of coming toward the line in time to stop a ball carrier for a minimal gain.
He was even used by Florida as an inside linebacker on occasion and a blitzing outside linebacker on several occasions. As an in-the-box safety, he’ll have success.
Where he’ll struggle as a rookie, and most likely his whole career, is in coverage.
First let’s look at another play from the LSU game.
Florida has a two-high safety look on third down.
Elam is lined up on the left side of the defense with three receivers on his side.
He starts the play off by standing in a place for a second too long, which comes back to haunt him as his cornerback, Marcus Roberson, lets his receiver go by to break toward the middle of the field, expecting Elam to take over.
However, Elam was a step too slow in reacting to the receiver run by, and he gets caught chasing.
An accurate throw by the quarterback allows the receiver to catch the ball in stride and take off down the sideline with Elam trailing for a big gain.
Once Elam finally catches up, he goes for the ball and successfully forces a fumble, which Florida recovered.
While he has the ability to change a play by forcing a turnover, Elam’s poor reaction in coverage resulted in a big gain by LSU to begin with.
For a player who has exceptional reaction skills in the run game and when passes are thrown in front of him, he struggles to properly react when he’s covering the back end of the defense.
Now let’s look at another type of coverage situation in which he struggles: defending taller receivers.
This play is from the Tennessee game in 2012.
Elam lines up as an inside linebacker to start the play.
He’s assigned to cover the tight end that was lined up on the right side of the line; however, Elam lets the receiver slip by.
Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray notices this, and instead of throwing the ball past the tight end, he throws it right to him, but out of Elam’s reach.
While the angle makes it hard to see the end of the play, the top arrow is pointing to the ball being caught by the tight end and the bottom arrow is pointing to Elam, who didn’t have the length to reach for the ball.
Elam shows flashes of skill in coverage on occasion when his playmaking ability allows him to punch the ball out of a receiver’s hand if he times it right.
However, his big play ability is mostly limited to tackling. He can get up to the front of the line rather quickly and make run plays result in minimal gains.
He won’t be roaming the back end of the defense too much for the Ravens, as that will be Michael Huff’s job for now.
Elam can create turnovers by forcing fumbles or coming up to the line in fourth-and-short situations. However, in coverage, he won’t be expected to have too many interceptions. Many of his interceptions in college were a result of being in the right place at the right time for an overthrown ball.
If the Ravens use him as a traditional in-the-box safety who occasionally covers in the slot, he’ll make a big impact for them, mainly as a dominating force in run defense.