OWINGS MILLS, Md. — Addressing one of their biggest needs with the final pick of the first round, the Ravens chose Florida safety Matt Elam with their first selection the 2013 NFL Draft.
Elam played strong safety as a two-year starter for the Gators but is considered versatile with his ability to play close to the line of scrimmage in run support as well as the necessary agility and speed to match up in pass coverage. General manager Ozzie Newsome said Elam not only addressed a need but was the highest-remaining player on the Ravens’ draft board.
“I think I’m going to bring a lot of competitiveness,” Elam said in a conference call with local media. “I’m going to bring a lot of energy. I know they’re expecting me to do great things. I’m going to work hard.”
Elam says he’s admired the Ravens over the years while following the Hall of Fame career of Ed Reed, who signed with the Houston Texans as a free agent earlier this offseason. However, he admitted he didn’t expect to wind up in Baltimore after the Carolina Panthers and the Cincinnati Bengals showed plenty of interest in the weeks leading up to the draft.
The 21-year-old told reporters he met with the Ravens’ brass at the scouting combine in February but did not have a private workout or visit with Baltimore. The Ravens had extra knowledge of Elam as current secondary coach Teryl Austin served as the Gators’ defensive coordinator during the safety’s freshman year in 2010.
Despite inside linebackers Manti Te’o and Kevin Minter both being available, the Ravens tabbed Elam as their first-round pick shortly before midnight on Thursday evening. Newsome told reporters following the first round that the Ravens had some conversations earlier in the evening about moving up or even trading out of the round, but the phones were silent when they were on the clock and they ultimately stayed put after trading their original first-round pick in two of the previous three drafts.
“The thing that we all like about Matt is the speed,” Newsome said. “He’s probably one of the better tacklers that we’ve seen play the position. The other thing is he enjoys practicing and enjoys playing football.”
He is the second safety to be taken in the team’s first-round history — Reed was selected with the 24th overall pick of the 2002 draft — and both hailed from schools in the state of Florida.
At 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, Elam does not possess great height, but his physicality and instincts caused many draft experts to link him with the Ravens as a good fit. His 4.54-second 40-yard dash time suggests he has enough speed to match up against tight ends and receivers lined up in the slot as well as to play effectively in deep zone coverage.
“I just feel like my size really doesn’t matter, because when you turn on the film, I’m a great competitor,” Elam said. “I am flying around, I am hitting guys, I am hitting guys bigger than me, so I feel like size really doesn’t matter. I feel like [if] you turn on the film, it tells it all. I feel like I competed well, and I will compete well because of the heart I have and how I work.”
In his final two seasons at Florida, Elam collected 154 tackles, including 22 behind the line of scrimmage, and six interceptions. He became only the second safety in school history to be named first-team All-American by the Associated Press in 2012, joining Reggie Nelson (2006). Elam was also a unanimous first-team all-SEC selection as a junior last season.
Elam was regarded by most as a mid-to-late first-round selection with his slight stature being his only clear drawback. He is used to the limelight after being recruited by the Gators as the top high school safety in the country in 2009.
“I talked to my wife this afternoon and she said, ‘Who do you hope to get?’ and [my answer] was Matt Elam,” coach John Harbaugh said. “I couldn’t be more excited about it. He’s just a good guy who loves ball and he just can’t wait to get started.”
Safety became one of the Ravens’ greatest positional needs following the decision to release strong safety Bernard Pollard and the free-agent departure of Reed. Elam is expected be paired with free-agent pickup Michael Huff as the starting safeties for the Baltimore defense.
While the departures of Reed and Pollard were unpopular, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the Ravens have upgraded their pass coverage in the back end of the secondary, which was considered a priority despite winning the Super Bowl. Elam may not bring an intimidation factor to the same degree as Pollard, but his skills in pass coverage could mean an immediate upgrade with more upside for the long haul.
The story of Elam’s journey to the NFL is heartbreaking but inspiring as the Florida native has overcome the tragic murders of two siblings — his 12-year-old sister when he was only 8 and an older brother in 2008 — as well as the death of his father in 2011. He wore No. 22 at Florida because it was his late sister’s favorite number.
Elam’s older brother Abe has played in the NFL with Dallas, the New York Jets, Cleveland, and Kansas City.