Matt Elam seems suited for strong safety in seasons to come

Matt Elam played most of his rookie season as Baltimore's free safety. - Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

The rookie played most of the 2013 season at free safety once Michael Huff was benched and released.

When you're a first round draft pick, big things are expected out of you early.

But it's fair to say, when you're drafted 32nd overall, it's not necessarily mandatory that you step in as an immediate contributor. A lot of players that fall back to the late first round and second round have to wait their turn in the NFL.

Matt Elam, in a way, fits that category.

A lot of fans had high expectations for Elam, drafted out of the University of Florida. But as the season began, Baltimore's two starting safeties were James Ihedigbo and Michael Huff. Quickly, it was apparent Huff wasn't a fit for the defense, as he lost his starting free safety job to Elam. Huff was subsequently released.

So here's a rookie, playing a position he wasn't necessarily drafted for. A strong safety in college, Elam had to learn a new role quick, even if both safety positions have many more responsibilities at the NFL level.

"Safeties are more interchangeable these days," Ravens coach John Harbaugh told reporters this past Tuesday. "You can't just say, ‘One guy is down, and one guy is back the whole time,' because you're going to get predictable with your pressure package. They can't always know which guy is going to be the guy coming and which guy is going to be the guy high, because they would know where the pressure would be coming from. They've both got to be showing coverage on both sides and showing pressure on both sides. But also there can be an emphasis."

Elam struggled at times in coverage, though Harbaugh complimented his ability to be in the right spot most of the time. But with no starting-caliber free safety on the roster, it would appear to be in Baltimore's best interest to find one in free agency or in the draft.

Elam's a physical safety that can come up and hit opposing players with the ball. He packs a powerful punch and possesses a great deal of closing speed.

Elam finished his rookie season with 77 combined tackles, two forced fumbles and one interception. Not bad, though he had quite a few moments of growing pains. Ihedigbo had the best NFL season of his career, finishing with 101 total tackles, two forced fumbles and three interceptions. His year might get him paid well elsewhere.

If so, Elam would be first in line to be Baltimore's starting strong safety in 2014, a position he should be able to flourish more in. The Ravens will need to do their due diligence to find a capable starting free safety if that's the case.

But if Elam is the franchise's strong safety of the foreseeable future, maybe it makes sense to thank Ihedigbo for his time with the franchise and let him move on. Neither of those two are suited for free safety in Baltimore's defense. And one is soon to be a second-year player with a lot of potential ahead of him, especially if he's able to make plays as a strong safety.

"Matt is pretty darn good when he is running to the ball and making tackles," Harbaugh said. "I think that's definitely a strength for him, and he showed that toward the end of the year."


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