His tackling prowess and eagerness to, as he put it, “make the receiver be scared,” drew the bulk of the attention immediately after the Ravens drafted him in the first round.
But what shouldn’t be forgotten is how good Elam is in coverage.
“He makes really impact hits, that’s what everyone sees. But that’s not all he is,” Director of College Scouting Joe Hortiz said. “He’s pretty much the complete safety.”
Elam didn’t play as much safety as one might think at Florida. He was actually often lined up at nickel cornerback.
That would frequently match him up one-on-one over the middle. It’s generally the most difficult part of coverage, and not something many safeties can pull off. Many like to sit back and read, lacking the speed to run with offensive targets.
“They had such confidence in his ability to cover,” Ravens Director of College Scouting Joe Hortiz said. “He can work over a wide receiver in the slot and has the speed and athleticism to match up with those guys. [Florida] matched him up on tight ends.”
When he wasn’t in man coverage, Elam frequently played closer to the line of scrimmage but still in zone coverage. Hortiz said Elam showed good zone awareness, locating routes coming into his zone and anticipating coverage on the back end.
“He’s a really smart football player,” Hortiz said. “He understands zone concepts.”
Then comes the hands. Elam notched six interceptions in his three years in Gainesville, Fla. Those aren’t staggering numbers, but it doesn’t mean Elam isn’t a ball hawk.
It’s because Florida used fellow safety Josh Evans, who was drafted by the Jaguars in the sixth round, in more of a deep coverage role. Evans had three interceptions last year while Elam notched four.
“He’s certainly capable [of more interceptions],” Hortiz said. “When he does drop deep, he shows the range, he shows route awareness and instincts on the back end. He just wasn’t used as much in that role. He can finish with the ball in the air.”
Ed Reed, the player many will compare Elam to, came to the Ravens as a first-round rookie and made an immediate impact as a ball-hawking safety. He picked off five passes in his first year, seven the next and nine in his third season.
That would be a difficult task for Elam to pull off, particularly because free-agent safety
But former Ravens head coach and current FOX analyst Brian Billick sees Elam possessing the same skills.
Matt Elam is far from Ed Reed but believe it or not his ball skills are just as good! It's fun watching this kid attack the ball in the air.— Brian Billick (@CoachBillick) April 26, 2013