If the Baltimore Ravens are to make it back to the playoffs in 2014, they'll need their younger players to make big leaps this season.
There may not be a player this applies more to than second-year safety Matt Elam. In the midst of the worst season of John Harbaugh's head coaching career—an 8-8 record and no playoffs—Elam was one of the lone bright spots.
Drafted in the first round (32nd overall) in the 2013 NFL draft, Elam was tasked with the unenviable responsibility of replacing Ravens great and future NFL Hall of Famer Ed Reed.
That shouldn't have been the case, though. Reed played free safety, and he was one of the best when it came to patrolling the field and frequently making plays in coverage.
That's not what Elam is. He's a strong safety who often played closer to the line of scrimmage in college, almost like an extra linebacker.
During his career at Florida, Elam recorded 176 tackles, including 23.5 tackles for loss. From a pass-coverage standpoint, though, he wasn't as productive, notching only 13 career pass breakups and six career interceptions.
Simply put, Elam was better at making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage, not dropping back into coverage. He was out of position as an NFL rookie, and that led to him struggling to make a positive impact.
Baltimore played Elam at free safety because of how well James Ihedigbo played at strong safety. Last year, Ihedigbo registered 101 tackles and received a plus-4.7 grade from Pro Football Focus (subscription required). That was the ninth-best grade of any Raven, and it showed why Baltimore wanted him at strong safety.
That led to Elam being moved to free safety as a rookie. He registered 66 tackles but had only three pass breakups and one interception, a low number for a free safety.
According to PFF, Elam had a minus-3.4 grade as a rookie, including a minus-6.6 grade in pass coverage. In run defense, however, Elam had a respectable plus-1.9 grade.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Elam's highest-rated game as a rookie came in his one start at strong safety: a plus-2.0 grade in Week 11 versus the Chicago Bears. This was the only game Elam started at the position.
The Ravens were beginning to see that Elam playing free safety wasn't the best idea, so they moved him to strong safety while starting Ihedigbo at free safety versus the Bears. Here's an example of Elam lining up at strong safety and Ihedigbo at free safety.
Elam is circled in black lining up on the line of scrimmage. Ihedigbo is circled in white lining up at free safety. For much of the 2013 season, it was Elam lining up deep behind the defense while Ihedigbo was put closer to the line.
But the roles were reversed this time, and Elam had the best game of his career because of it.
On this play, Elam explodes off the line and into the backfield. He gets chipped by running back Matt Forte but still manages to force quarterback Josh McCown out of the pocket and into the waiting arms of cornerback Corey Graham, who picks up the sack.
Though Elam didn't get the sack, he did disrupt the play and helped cause a negative play by Chicago. Elam was credited with a QB hurry on this play. Here's another example from that game in which Elam made a positive play at strong safety.
Once again, Elam is lining up at the line of scrimmage while Ihedigbo is back deep.
Elam lines up between the tackle and tight end, where the quickest path to the backfield is.
Elam explodes into the backfield and wraps up Matt Forte for no gain on the play. This is another negative play Elam forced while playing at strong safety.
By going back to strong safety, Elam returns to the position where he was an All-American selection at Florida who registered 176 career tackles, six interceptions and five sacks. It gets him closer to the line of scrimmage.
'That's what I did in college because I played a lot of nickel,' Elam said. 'I was closer to the line of scrimmage, so I was more confident. In high school playing linebacker, that's what I was more confident at.
'You have to build your stock. You have to be able to do more, play the nickel, play free, strong, play corner. I just want to do whatever I can to help this team win and get back to where we were.'
If Elam plays at strong safety full time in 2014, he'll have a great season while looking like a steal where the Ravens drafted him.
Baltimore has been one of the best drafting teams since Ozzie Newsome became the team's general manager. His mantra has been taking the best player available, and it's often led to him getting good value picks.
Elam is a small example of this. Selected 32nd overall, he played like a player who should have been drafted higher. B/R's own Alessandro Miglio did a re-draft of the 2013 draft, and he had Elam going 30th overall to the Falcons.
While it wasn't significantly higher, it does reinforce the belief that Baltimore got one of the best players available, if not the best, when it selected Elam where it did. It also shows how good Elam was able to be despite playing out of position.
Had Elam played strong safety full time as a rookie, we would have seen his true potential as an NFL player. As it stands, we should see Elam have a breakout year in 2014 if he is the full-time starter at strong safety.
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