The Florida Fix: Saying Goodbye To Matt Elam

May 9th, 2013 by John Carey

Matt Elam was one of the elite defenders on Florida’s defense in both 2012 and 2011. When Florida went 7-6 in 2011, Elam was one of the few bright spots on the team, as he played at an elite level. He was a vocal leader on defense, and led by example by being a team player and never calling out guys in public or causing locker room strife.

During his career at Florida, Elam played with a reckless style and was one of the hardest hitting players in college football. Elam was second on the team in tackles with 76, and also had 11 tackles for loss. He was 1st team All-SEC and 1st team All-Pro. He was also voted a team captain in 2012. Elam’s best attributes are his ability to walk up to the line of scrimmage and be physical, and to also be able to drop back and be a single high safety. He gets a nice initial jam on receivers when he is in slot coverage, and is able to disrupt their routes for the first 4 or 5 yards. Elam shows good vision and anticipation when fighting through blocks near the line of scrimmage and is generally a reliable, physical tackler. He brings his hips as a hitter, showing the closing speed and raw power to generate explosiveness. Elam was one of Florida’s best safeties in quite some time and had a great career, and his NFL career is just as promising.

The Ravens filled one of their primary offseason needs when they took Elam at pick #32. While many see the loss of Ed Reed as the reason they have a hole at safety, they also cut Bernard Pollard, which left a whole at both safety positions. They signed Michael Huff to fill in at Reed’s spot, so Elam will slide into Pollard’s former spot, where Elam is a more natural fit. Raven’s GM Ozzie Newsome’s draft strategy is to take the best player available when he picks, so Elam was obviously their top rated player left when they picked. Newsome loves to get players from the SEC, as he is an Alabama alumnus, and knows that only the best play in the SEC as one must play a physical and powerful game to win. The Ravens had Elam come in for several private workouts during the draft process and he was rumored to be one of their favorite players in this year’s class.

Elam is a perfect fit in Baltimore’s defensive scheme with his physical style of play, and he will step in and start right away for the Ravens at strong safety. Elam has the typical Ravens mindset, to be physical and aggressive and to, as Mike Singletary would say, go out and hit people in the mouth. Elam will benefit greatly from a Baltimore front 7 that has gotten a bit of a face lift this offseason, with the additions of Elvis Dumervil, Chris Canty, Marcus Spears, Arthur Brown, and Rolando McClain. This group will provide an effective pass rush to confuse the quarterback into throwing to Elam, and will allow him to play more comfortably in coverage. This group will also dominate the line of scrimmage and open up holes for Elam to make plays in the run game as well. With such great pieces around Elam, do not be surprised if he ends up with 4 or 5 interceptions on the year and several tackles for loss as well.

Elam falling to pick #32 wasn’t all that big of a surprise as most mock drafts had him going somewhere in the mid/late first to early second round. Elam being a late first is likely due to his limited ability as a coverage safety, as he doesn’t possess the elite speed to cover some of the wide receivers or tight ends in today’s NFL. He also did have a good amount of penalties in his collegiate career due to his physical style of play, and with the current move towards the game getting a little softer; some teams may have been weary to pick up a hard hitting in the box safety. He is a little smaller than one would usually want at the safety position, but there is nothing he can do to improve that. He also had some minor arrests early in his college career involving alcohol.

Elam needs to develop his game more to adjust to life in the NFL as he still has some holes to fill. His aggressive style of play can be a blessing for him but can also be a curse, as he can tend to be too aggressive and come in too hot and lose his balance and control and leave cut back lanes. He can tend to lead with his shoulder when tackling, and will often leave his feet as well. His biggest issue are his cover skills as elite quarterbacks will often pick on him in coverage by having their receivers run routes that take advantage of his below average lateral agility, such as in the Sugar Bowl, where he was picked on by Bridgewater numerous times. If Elam can work on these holes in his game, he can be one of the elite safeties in the NFL.

With Josh Evans and De’Ante Saunders also out of the picture for 2013, Florida’s depth at safety will be tested. While Jabari Gorman looks to be the replacement for Evans, it appears as though the Gators’ safety recruits will be battling rising sophomores Marcus Maye and Rhaheim Ledbetter for the starting strong safety spot. Neither Mayes nor Rhaheim played much at all in their freshman season for the Gators, and reportedly seem even in their battle right now heading into the summer. Florida also has some talented freshman safeties coming in that could fight for playing time, namely Marcell Harris. Harris was a top recruit last year, and is a natural fit to come in and start at Elam’s strong safety spot. He has a very similar style of physical play as Elam, and has been called a taller version of Elam. At the moment it seems as if it will be a 3 way battle at the beginning of the season for Elam’s starting spot, and I would tend to say that Harris will wind up winning the spot, as he is the most natural replacement.

Matt Elam had a wonderful career for the Florida Gators, and will forever be one of the top defenders to play for Florida. His physical presence on defense will be missed on defense, and his role as a vocal leader on defense is something that will leave a void as well. Elam was a great Gator, but look for him to be an even better Raven. If he can work on some of the holes in his game, he can be an All Pro safety in the NFL. So as Elam leaves for his NFL career, I wish him all the success in his endeavors, and hope that he can become one of the greats.

So goodbye Matt Elam and good luck in the NFL.

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