General Manager Ozzie Newsome has watched a lot of college tape in his day.
But when Newsome flipped on the tape of Florida’s Matt Elam, he was taken aback.
The strong safety flies around the field with high energy, delivering highlight-reel hits while still wrapping up on tackles. He plays like a Raven.
“I’ve never been so excited; it was fun watching him play,” Newsome said.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve watched a player on tape and play after play you just go, ‘Wow, oh wow.’ The way he played on tape is the way you have to play in the AFC North.”
The Ravens had their choice between Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te’o or Elam with the final pick of the first round in the 2013 NFL Draft, two players at position of need. They went with Elam, the highest-rated player on their board at the time.
Baltimore had lined up Elam from the start. Newsome said that if he, Assistant General Manager Eric DeCosta, Head Coach John Harbaugh and Director of College Scouting Joe Hortiz would have been asked at the beginning of the day who would like at No. 32, they all would have said Elam.
“I think the thing we all like about Matt is his speed, he’s one of the better tacklers that we’ve seen play the position,” Newsome said. “The other thing that we look to, he enjoys practicing and he enjoys the game of football. Matt Elam was our guy.”
The Ravens lost both of their starting safeties this offseason in Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard. Reed was once known for his huge hits, a crown taken over by Pollard the past couple years.
Now Elam will likely be the enforcer in the back end.
His speed and tackling ability make him an immediate and strong special teams weapon. Elam will have a strong opportunity to step into the spot vacated by Pollard at strong safety.
If Elam becomes a starter, he and free-agent aquisition
“He definitely has a chance to do that,” Harbaugh said. “He’ll have to earn it. We have one veteran safety in there and some young guys that will be competing for it as well. But we always play the best guy, and that’s the guy that’s playing the best. Matt Elam will be right in the middle of that fight.”
Elam was Florida’s starter at strong safety the past two years. In 2011, he led the team in tackles for loss (11), pass breakups (seven) and forced fumbles (two). In 2012, he logged 76 tackles, once again making 11 of them for a loss. He added two sacks, one forced fumble, and four interceptions.
“This guy, quite honestly, just about every chance he had to get a guy down, he did,” DeCosta said. “He can cover very well. He’s played high, he’s played low. He has ball skills.”
Still, Elam was drafted behind two other safeties: Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro (No. 14, New Orleans) and LSU’s Eric Reid (No. 18, San Francisco). Elam said that has put a chip on his shoulder because he feels he is the best safety in the draft.
The criticism of Elam, and perhaps the reason he was available at the end of the first round, is his size. He stands in at just 5-foot-10, three inches shorter than Pollard. Elam’s 208-pound frame is quite muscular, however.
“I just feel like my size won’t matter because when you turn on the film I’m a great competitor, I’m flying around, I’m hitting guys bigger than me. Size doesn’t matter,” Elam said. “I’m going to make receivers be scared when they come my way the next time. That’s in my job description.”
Elam, who has gone through family tragedy as a sister and brother were once murdered, comes to Baltimore already with plenty of ties. Defensive Backs Coach Teryl Austin coached Elam at Florida in 2010. Austin was the defensive coordinator at the time.
Ravens Defensive Coordinator Dean Pees coached his older brother, Abe Elam formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs, when he was in college at Kent State. Special Teams Coordinator Jerry Rosburg recruited Abe to Notre Dame.
Elam said his brother’s seven years in the NFL has already helped him understand what it takes to be a professional, and his ties will make his transition smoother.
“I’m going to come in here and try to do everything I can to win championships,” said Elam, who didn’t think he was going to go to the Ravens because other teams, including Cincinnati and Carolina, showed him more pre-draft attention. The Ravens didn’t host Elam for a visit, choosing to only interview him at the combine.
While the Ravens coveted Elam, Newsome said he made some calls to potentially trade up in the draft as certain players he liked slid. He said there were not any calls to move back out of the first round.
There was a prevalent thought that the Ravens would take Te’o, another projected first-round pick at a position of need, when he was still on the board at pick No. 32. Newsome was asked why he didn’t take Te’o.
“Matt was the higher-rated player between those two guys,” he said.