Fans and analysts are already marking Matt Elam as a bust, which is foolish if you look into his few years in Baltimore and the success that the Ravens have had with their draft picks.
Of course, the Ravens have a great track record of having their early draft picks contribute immediately and eventually growing into stars. However, we only need to look at fellow Ravens to get a good glimpse at why the dreaded "b" word is not needed yet.
Cornerback Jimmy Smith just signed a fat extension this offseason and is already looking to improve from an injury filled 2014 season that could have had him in the Pro Bowl otherwise. It wasn't long ago that fans were calling him a bust and screaming to pull him off the field. Now those are the same fans crying that he isn't listed in the top 5 of his position. All because it seemed to the casual fan that things 'clicked' for Smith and he suddenly was an All-Pro corner, when in fact, the game slowed down for him a little more and the mental aspect finally sunk in to where he could just play without having to think.
See, Elam is no different. Unlike linebackers or linemen, the secondary requires far more patience and practice in order to master. Not only do the young players need to learn the new and more complicated scheme, they get to see the upgraded speed of the game up close and personal right from the start. Guys weren't this big, fast and physical in college; but now they are all that way and you have to go toe to toe with them where the smallest mistake means a touchdown. Unlike other positions, the secondary has no room for error. You can't guess a route and only have it go for 10 yards, and you can't miss a tackle and have someone behind you to pick up your error; as a safety, you are the last line of defense for the defense, meaning that there are no small errors back there.
Elam might not be the greatest safety when it's all said and done, but he has all the physical tools needed to become a starter in this league and for the Baltimore Ravens. His issue, much like Jimmy Smith before him, has been the mental aspect, despite what look like physical flaws. It doesn't help that the Ravens have altered his position early in his career and have asked him to fill major gaps in the secondary due to injury. Elam is your typical in-the-box safety. He plays fast and hits hard. Asking him to cover guys is a liability and will likely always be. Because of that late start to his ultimate position, Elam has yet to fully learn the mental part of the game. That has left him out of position and late to the ball, leading him to have poor fundamentals all around as he tries to compensate.
With OTAs underway, I got a chance to see Elam first-hand. Even though it was without pads, Elam found himself around the ball on almost every play and in good position to not only secure a tackle, but to deliver a punishing blow that could see fumbles through the roof. He came in hard and fast and actually had to let up to avoid not drilling players on every single play, which is a good thing if you are the Ravens and Matt Elam. That is the intensity that the Ravens are looking for out of him and it will lead to his snap numbers going up.
If that wasn't enough to jump back on the Elam bandwagon, let's also not forget that the Ravens are still thin in the secondary. While Will Hill is the presumed starter, hill is only one a one year deal. Another good season from him and he will find himself the recipient of a bigger deal that the Ravens might not want to/can't afford to match. If Elam shows that he is even remotely ready to move forward, he could be the starter next season for relatively cheap. In fact, I'd say that the Ravens are betting on his improved play this season leading to a growing snap count, eventually leading to Elam becoming the starter. Teamed up with a cover safety, Elam could be a younger version of Bernard Pollard for Baltimore, earning his way to massive hits and a role on a top rated Ravens' defense.