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Matt Elam: Set up for failure since day one

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Carolina Panthers v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

With the departure of Matt Elam many fans are giving their opinions of the former first rounder.

“End of a mediocre era”
“The rest of the AFC North is devastated. No one had a better view of AJ Green’s back than Elam”
“I hope so”
“Brooks beat out Elam”

Rough to read. There are other fans not happy about the departure, but I’m highlighting the negative for a reason.

Matt Elam never got a fair chance at success. I was anxious for him just as all other Ravens fans too, but the Ravens didn’t give him opportunities to succeed.

Rookie year:

Matt Elam’s rookie season was very up-and-down. His first year he was the Baltimore Ravens free safety. Not normally his position, but he was there to fill the loss of Ed Reed, top safety in NFL history. The expectations were sky-high. The rookie went through growing pains. His stats:

1 INT | 3 PD | 2 FR | 54 tackles

The stats aren’t gaudy, and even then we all know the numbers don’t show everything. We remember the missed tackles. We remember the out of coverage whiffs. The rookie mistakes. Baltimore fans have been blessed by Ozzie’s draft prowess for so many years that when Matt Elam didn’t instantly produce, fans were quick with the negativity. He was a rookie defensive back in the NFL, give it some time. Hell, Jimmy Smith took five years and until Super Bowl XLVII to completely become who he is today.

The 2013 season was all sorts of awkward for the Ravens secondary. Michael Huff was expected to become the free safety while Elam and James Ihedigbo played strong safety. Unfortunately Huff was so bad the Ravens cut him and transitioned Matt to the free safety position. This was the beginning of his undoing.

Read the strengths from NFL.com on his draft profile:

“Plays close to the line of scrimmage or in the box very often. At his best when asked to make a play, either blitzing or one-on-one on the edge. Frequently assigned to cover the slot receiver. There are times when he flashes tremendous disruption when the play is developing in front of him. Has catch-up speed to chase down when he wants to. Gets hand up to disrupt at the catch point even if head is not turned to locate the football.”

With this knowledge, where would you put Matt Elam? If you answered deep safety role, you are the Baltimore Ravens.

James Ihedigbo became the SS player for Baltimore, leaving Matt Elam in the toughest possible role. He didn’t play much in the nickel role covering slot receivers. Elam played deep ball role with a lack of knowledge and skill for the job. After being unsuccessful in a role he isn’t built for, the Ravens stopped starting Elam.

In 2014 the Ravens then let go of Ihedigbo to the Detroit Lions, who also managed to take the Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin. The loss of Austin is another huge factor in Elam’s stunted growth. Folks are quick to point out the loss of a QB coach, or an offensive coordinator, yet this flew under the radar for most fans when bringing up Elam’s lack of development. You need a good coach to train the best athletes in the world.

Baltimore then added a new free safety into the mix, Darian Stewart. For the Ravens Stewart was average, capable of making the basics work, but nothing extraordinary came with him. He definitely was unable to cover for Elam or mentor him. On the Broncos last season Stewart showed above average abilities when paired with Pro Bowl caliber players, intercepting Joe Flacco on the goal line and sealing a week one win over his former team. The Ravens also picked up key free agent Will Hill III, who played the strong safety role for Baltimore after his suspension ended. The front office also drafted Terrence Brooks at the position.

During Will Hill’s suspension Matt Elam was playing into his original role. After not playing the position for a full season Matt Elam wasn’t a sound player, but he combined for 22 total tackles in seven games, albeit with a bevy of missed tackles. To be expected from a player that is practically going through another rookie season at a new role, with a new secondary coach.

The Ravens shifted Elam back and forth with Will Hill’s arrival. After Hill proved to be the best strong safety on the team the Ravens pushed Elam back to free safety, but the snaps slowly diminished with him sharing time with Stewart and Brooks. Elam couldn’t grow into his skillset when they weren’t playing him in the right role.

What do we know about the younger Matt Elam?

  1. Lack of knowledge of the deep safety position
  2. Skillset built entirely towards ‘box safety’ style of play
  3. Tackling skill is lackluster
  4. Deep coverage skill lacking

What does the deep safety need?

  1. High football IQ
  2. High range, great coverage skills
  3. Sure tackler
  4. Great deep ball skills

Matt Elam was set up for failure.

In 2015 Matt Elam came back to camp in the best shape yet. He had put down his past skeletons. I wrote this article over a year ago. If you aren’t reading it, here is a recap that should make you actually read the article.

  • At age five he went through his parents divorce.
  • At age eight, after a drive-by, Matt buried his sister Christina who was shot and killed.
  • He lost his father to cancer.
  • His older brother Donald Jr. was shot and killed, the murder has gone unsolved.

It seemed Matt Elam had turned the corner; No longer his mind clouded from the past. Former Baltimore Beatdown manager Matthew Stevens attended training camp that year. He came back with the news almost daily of Elam looking great. Stevens and I spoke each afternoon and Elam was brought into the conversation with being at the right place and in position ready to execute. It was short lived though, as Elam tore his biceps and was out for the season.

The bust label was then practically sealed. The Ravens declined his fifth year option, (which they should) and 2016 was the final year to make the jump.

This season I attended training camp. I watched as Elam made great pass deflections, called audibles and made multiple interceptions in camp. Eric Weddle’s guidance fueled with Elam’s drive to prove he’s a 53 man candidate looked to be more ready than ever. In his two preseason games Elam made big open field tackles that were the biggest knocks on his game. He made a goal line pass breakup we all didn’t see coming. Matt Elam was ready to become an NFL safety.

Then the news broke.

And with that the Baltimore Ravens look to be finished with the former first round pick. They are injury waiving him. If he does clear waivers I do expect to see him come back to Baltimore, but that is if he clears waivers.

Matt Elam took his sweet time to become an NFL player, but let’s not pretend the Baltimore Ravens helped to flourish his skills.