OWINGS MILLS, Md. — The Ravens appear absolutely thrilled with their first-round selection Matt Elam of Florida.
The 21-year-old safety was a player the Ravens had been targeting all along to add to their defense, but Elam’s addition doesn’t come without questions. His 5-foot-10 height isn’t ideal for matching up with the monstrous tight ends taking over the NFL and his brutally-physical style of play will make some wonder if he’s a young version of Bernard Pollard — complete with the propensity for drawing flags — but a deeper look into his history and motivation for landing where he is today makes him easy to root for.
Dealing with the murder of his 12-year-old sister when he was 8 and then coping with an older brother facing the same fate less than a decade later would have been enough to send just about anyone down the wrong path. Instead, Elam channeled that emotion to work even harder to realize his dream of playing in the NFL.
“It was just me understanding that I’m tired of the frowns and the tears and the funerals and things like that,” said Elam, who grew up in a rough neighborhood in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.. “I was like, ‘I’m going to turn this around. I’m going to do this the right way. I’m going to turn the frowns into smiles. I’m going to make sure my family is happy. I’m going to make sure the happiness overcomes all the tragedy and adversity.”
A decision by his mother to send Elam to another school — he attended William T. Dwyer High in West Palm Beach — to avoid getting in trouble also aided as he eventually enjoyed a standout career with the Gators and was selected with the 32nd overall pick of the NFL Draft on Thursday night. The positive influence of his older brother and current NFL player Abe also kept Elam focused on improving his life and bringing that joy to his family.
It makes his slight stature and questions about his pass coverage seem a little less important as no one really knows how Elam’s skill set in the SEC will translate to Sundays in the NFL. The Ravens seem convinced that it will.
Elam seems to hope you’ll doubt him after he admits having a chip on his shoulder after two safeties — Kenny Vaccaro of Texas and Eric Reid of LSU — were taken before him in the first round. His background makes it easy to see how he might use such perceived slights as motivation.
“A lot of kids my age that have been through the same thing lost siblings and took it negatively and didn’t use it as motivation [or] make it positive,” Elam said. “I used it as positive energy and things like that. I feel like it helped me, growing through that thing helped me.”
His heartfelt story aside, it’s fair to ask questions about Elam’s height as he’ll occasionally be matched up with receivers or tight ends more than a half-foot taller than him. Elam displayed good ball skills in college and appeared competent in coverage when he wasn’t playing in the box to stop the run.
It remains to be seen how the Ravens will use him as defensive coordinator Dean Pees said Elam will be asked to learn both safety positions as well as the nickel spot for certain packages. He could emerge as a Swiss army knife that the Ravens can use all over the field, but it’s clear his physicality stands out, evident by the highlight-reel hits he turned in on a weekly basis in Gainesville.
“The guy can run, the guy can cover, and — most of all — he can hit,” Pees said. “What I like most about him watching him on film is there is a dying art in college football in the secondary, and it’s called tackling. This guy has that heart.”
That description will immediately make Ravens fans think of Pollard, who was popular for his violent collisions but also guilty of infractions with the NFL’s commitment to cracking down on blows to the head of defenseless receivers. Pro football is a changing game and there is at least some question whether Elam’s wild-man approach will sit well with officials and commissioner Roger Goodell.
However, the Ravens don’t seem too concerned and Elam believes he is fundamentally sound with his approach to attacking would-be receivers and ball carriers.
“I feel like I won’t let up a bit. I’ll just rely on my technique,” Elam said. “Like I said, I’ll improve every day in practice, and I feel like it won’t be a problem. I’ll rely on my technique. It won’t slow me down a bit.”
The truth is no one really knows whether Elam will emerge as the next great safety in the Baltimore secondary or simply become a solid defensive back with limitations due to height and a reputation for going overboard in the same way Pollard did. His cover skills looked strong enough in small doses at Florida, but will he be able to hang with tight ends and wide receivers that look like power forwards at the next level?
That remains to be seen, but the simple fact that Elam sat in front of media and answered questions about his NFL career was a victory in and of itself after everything he’s been through.
It would have been easy to take his life in a darker direction, but Elam elected to push past tragedy and attack his goals in the same way he does the opposition. With that in mind, the questions he faces seem quite trivial.
But Elam is taking nothing for granted with his opportunity to join the defending Super Bowl champions.
“Growing up, I had to work through things,” Elam said. “My parents and my brother always made me work at it – made me earn things. Like I said, I don’t want anything given, because if it’s given, it’s not earned.”