OWING MILLS, Md. — Matt Elam’s return to the practice field on Tuesday might have gone unnoticed by observers if not for a copy of the Ravens roster being handy.
Sporting a new jersey — No. 33 — and suiting up for his first full-team workout since undergoing knee surgery in August, the 2013 first-round pick knows there are no guarantees in the final season of his rookie contract. Drafted just three months after Super Bowl XLVII and several weeks after the departure of future Hall of Famer Ed Reed, Elam was supposed to take the torch as the next great Baltimore safety.
Instead, he’s come to symbolize frustration with recent drafts and the scarcity of young impact players on the Baltimore roster since that championship. Needing more depth at the safety position and with no other logical candidates, the Ravens have designated Elam to return from injured reserve, meaning he can now practice for up to 21 days and is eligible to play as soon as the Nov. 10 game against Cleveland.
“That means they believe in me a little bit and it means a lot for me, giving me a little confidence and things like that,” said Elam, who missed the entire 2015 season with a torn biceps. “It’s a great feeling. I’m happy to have the opportunity and I’m thankful for it. I’m just trying to take advantage of the opportunity I have.”
Expectations won’t be that high for a player who failed to prove himself as a starter over his first two seasons and was eventually demoted to a nickel role in 2014. In 32 career games (26 starts), the 25-year-old Elam has collected 127 tackles, one interception, a forced fumble, and seven pass breakups.
Often lost in coverage and guilty of missing too many tackles despite a reputation for being a hard hitter at the University of Florida, Elam earned praise for being in better shape and practicing well in the spring and summer. Of course, similar sentiments were shared by coaches in previous years, but Elam made a strong impression with new secondary coach Leslie Frazier, who had no previous investment in his development as a player.
“He was really having a good camp for us. He did a good job in OTAs and everything we had done in the offseason,” Frazier said. “As a coaching staff, we were really looking forward to watching him progress over the course of the preseason. Then, the injury occurred. Now, we will have to wait and see how he progresses over these next few weeks as we are trying to make a determination whether to get him back up again. But his ball skills, his toughness, his athletic ability — it was showing up.”
The Ravens can only hope it’s better late than never for one of the most disappointing first-round picks in franchise history.
Still confident in Hester
Veteran return specialist Devin Hester hasn’t made near the impact the Ravens envisioned when they signed the 33-year-old to a one-year contract in early September.
With Hester having already fumbled four times in six games — twice in Sunday’s loss to the New York Jets — and not looking explosive returning kicks, many have wondered how many more opportunities the Ravens will give the future Hall of Famer. For now, special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg remains confident in the man with the most kick and punt return touchdowns in NFL history, citing a lingering thigh injury as the biggest challenge.
“It’s affecting him in two ways: one is just his ability to move and the other is his ability to practice,” said Rosburg, who added that Hester’s technique trying to catch the ball hasn’t been the issue. “It’s a tough skill, and he needs to practice. The practice he’s been getting is in pre-game warm-ups, and that’s not enough. I’m hopeful these next two weeks he’ll be able to get healthy and be able to be out there next time and do better in the ball-security areas.”
Hester also underwent offseason toe surgery, which prompted Atlanta to release him over the summer. Head coach John Harbaugh expressed confidence in Hester on Monday before acknowledging the possibility of his age preventing him from getting and staying healthy.
Under the radar
After a frustrating 2015 season coming back from Lisfranc surgery on his left foot, cornerback Jimmy Smith is coming on for an improved Ravens defense in a major way.
Smith held Odell Beckham Jr. to just one catch for six yards before exiting the Week 6 contest with a concussion, which allowed the Giants wide receiver to go nuts against the rest of the Baltimore secondary in the second half. Against the Jets, the 2011 first-round pick primarily traveled with No. 1 receiver Brandon Marshall, who caught only three passes for 39 yards in the game.
“Jimmy is an underrated guy in a lot of ways,” said Frazier, who first met Smith before the 2011 draft when he was the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings. “He can tackle. He can match up on top receivers. He is having an under-the-radar outstanding season, and hopefully he can stay healthy and it continues. He allows us to do a lot of things.
“One of the reasons we were leading the league through five games with the least amount of big plays had a lot to do with the play of Jimmy Smith. As soon as he goes out for a period of time, we [gave up] some explosive plays. Getting him back was a big plus, and hopefully, he will stay healthy.”
The 28-year-old Smith has 18 tackles and one pass breakup this season.
Missing the man in the middle
It’s no secret that the Ravens have struggled in pass coverage in the middle of the field over the last two weeks, which coincides with the absence of inside linebacker C.J. Mosley.
Mosley not only leads the team with three interceptions, but he has made a smooth transition to the “Mike” linebacker spot after veteran Daryl Smith was released in the offseason. Zach Orr and Albert McClellan have handled the inside linebacker spots with Mosley out.
“Anytime you have your leader in the middle of the defense and he’s missing — not a knock to any second-string quarterbacks in the league — it’s like having a second-string quarterback out there,” linebackers coach Don Martindale said. “It is different. Sure, you would like to have C.J. out there all of the time.”
Mosley did not practice on Tuesday as he continues to recover from a hamstring injury suffered in the Week 5 loss to Washington.