Now that he's a starter, DeShon Elliott is driven to remain one for a long time. Part of his motivation comes from entering the NFL with a chip on his shoulder.
In 2017, Elliott and Minkah Fitzpatrick of the Pittsburgh Steelers were both first-team All-Americans. They were also finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, given to college football's top defensive back. Fitzpatrick won the award, was drafted in the first round by the Miami Dolphins, and has become a Pro Bowl safety with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Meanwhile, Elliott's NFL transition from Texas to the NFL has been far more challenging than Fitzpatrick's journey from Alabama to the pros. Elliott was disappointed when he lasted until the sixth round of the 2018 draft, and his frustration increased when he suffered season-ending injuries in 2018 (forearm) and 2019 (knee).
However, 2020 presented Elliott with an opportunity to start after Earl Thomas III was released, and the third-year safety is cashing in. He's coming off perhaps his best game as a Raven, forcing two fumbles during a 30-28 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Fitzpatrick is known for being a playmaker. Elliott, who had six interceptions, three forced fumbles and two touchdowns in junior year of college, is showing he can be one in the NFL too.
Following the Ravens' bye week, Elliott is preparing for Sunday's AFC North showdown against the Steelers, where his old friend Fitzpatrick will be playing for the opposing team.
Fitzpatrick is recognized as one of the game's best safeties, but Elliott hasn't forgotten that they were once mentioned in the same breath in college. Elliott sees no reason that he can't be recognized as an elite safety again, and he's willing to put in the work. His nickname is "The Joker", but Elliott is serious about maximizing his talent.
Ravens Pass Defensive Coordinator Chris Hewitt said he expects Elliott will be a "staple around here for a while."
"He's gotten better every week," Hewitt said. "(He's) getting more comfortable playing his position. He's always been a guy who's been extremely studious, a guy who is taking every rep to try to get better. Becoming a pro, he had so many examples in front of him, like the Eric Weddle's and the 'T.J.' (Tony) Jefferson's, on how to be a pro – coming in early in the morning, getting your lifts in and watching tape. He's done everything the right way, and his approach is going to help him become a really good player."
Elliott doesn't dwell on what he does right. He focuses on correcting mistakes. When he dropped a potential interception in Philadelphia, Elliott was irritated. So during the bye week he spent extra time working on a Jugs machine and posted a picture on social media.
His injury-marred first two NFL seasons were frustrating, but Elliott kept studying the playbook and stayed ready. One of his closest friends is fellow starting safety Chuck Clark, also a sixth-round draft pick (2017) who had to wait his turn. Watching Clark stay prepared for his opportunity inspired Elliott to do the same. Clark couldn't be happier to see Elliott seize his moment.
"He's just getting his opportunity to shine," Clark said. "He sat around on the bench for two years – same situation as me – and once we finally got out there and showed that we can play, it's like, we're out here to take it and run with it, and that's what we tell each other just about every game. I'm so happy for him that he's even able to be out there. He's healthy, being able to make plays, get turnovers and just show his spirit out there on the field."
Elliott and Clark have shared a bond since joining the Ravens. Just call them the sixth-round safeties. Even better, call them the starting safeties who have earned their status.
"People didn't expect much from us," Elliott said. "We both knew we were dogs who were going to work hard. We were going to fight through whatever was thrown at us."
Clark and Elliott could be a starting combination for years to come, and their skillsets complement each other. Clark is quiet and steady, a cerebral player who relays the defensive signals to the defense. Elliott is aggressive and less experienced, but he's learning from his veteran teammates.
Being in a secondary that includes Clark and talented cornerbacks like Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Peters and Jimmy Smith has eased the pressure on Elliott. They all believed Elliott was ready to start, and the talent surrounding him has made his transition easier.
"Walking into work every day, I know I've got three of the best corners in the NFL," Elliott said. "I can just do my job and not worry about anything else."
Elliott is a trash talker and outgoing, giving the persona that he is always confident. But he admits becoming a starter on a team with Super Bowl aspirations was an adjustment.
"At the beginning, I was a little nervous," Elliott said. "I knew what I was doing. Just nervous because I didn't want to mess up. Now instead of worrying about messing up, I can just go out there and play freely, play like myself. As these weeks go on, I'll just get better and better."
That is exactly what the Ravens are hoping for. He has already contributed 25 tackles, two sacks and three passes defended through six games on a defense that has given up the fewest points in the NFL. Elliott has shown great promise, with plenty of room left to grow. Making his first start against the Steelers will be another learning experience, but the Ravens know Elliott responds to challenges.
"He's developing into an established starter," Head Coach John Harbaugh said. "Now, he's not there yet. He knows there's a lot of things as a young player – eyes, what he sees when he's deep and then communication. But he's the guy who's talking to me after the game, or we're texting back and forth, and he's a guy who says, 'Hey, I've got to get better.' He already knows, and you appreciate that.
"That's kind of the foundation for a really good player. (Someone) who understands that and wants to acknowledge the things that he can get better at. He's thinking about them all the time. He's going to be fine. He's going to be a lot better than fine."