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Late For Work 7/3: Matt Elam Most Important Rookie In Division


Elam Most Important Rookie In AFC North

When the Ravens drafted safety Matt Elam in April, General Manager Ozzie Newsome told the first-round pick that he'd be expected to carry on a long history of great safety play in Baltimore.  

The Ravens had recently parted with veterans Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard – the two starting safeties in the Super Bowl – and they looked to Elam to fill the void in the secondary.

Elam is now is now in line to compete for a starting job, and the NFL Network's Eric Davis sees the All-American out of Florida as the most important rookie in the AFC North.   

"You got a lot of production from the safety position out of Pollard and Reed, and now you have a rookie coming in, and this defense is still going to be expected to play at that level," Davis said on NFL AM. "He is going to be expected to play at that level."

Elam is competing with veterans Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo for the two starting safety positions. The rookie drew positive reviews during offseason practices, showcasing his speed, play-making ability and knack for finding the football.

Davis did acknowledge that it's unfair to expect Elam to step right into Reed's place and immediately match the production of a future Hall of Famer.

"They know it's rare that you get that Hall of Famer," Davis said. "But still, there is a certain standard of defensive play [in Baltimore] where he is going to have to come in, and those are some big shoes to fill. You didn't lose one of those guys. You lost both. Both of your safeties are gone. So he's going to have to come into the back end of that defense and make some plays for them."

The loss of Reed and Pollard was part of a defensive overhaul in Baltimore this offseason, as the Ravens shifted to a much younger, faster unit. Elam is one of the headliners of that transition, and that's why he's considered an X-factor for the Ravens and their ability to take home the division crown for the third straight season.

"Whether it's a positive effect or negative effect, he is going to affect their season," Davis said. 

Sacks Are Overrated Stat For Ravens

In addition to the transition in the secondary, the defense has also undergone plenty of changes up front.

The Ravens have remade their front seven, and as a result the pass rush is expected to take a big step forward. With Terrell Suggs healthy, and the additions of Elvis Dumervil and Chris Canty, the Ravens have proven veterans with the ability to chase down quarterbacks.

The defense could see a significant increase in the sacks column, but ESPN blogger Jamison Hensley cautioned against reading too much into that stat.

"This isn't really significant for the Ravens," Hensley wrote. "Just to be clear, getting pressure on the quarterback should be the No. 1 goal for every defense. Sacks, though, have been a relatively useless statistic in terms of measuring Baltimore's success."

Last season the Ravens finished the regular season with 37 sacks, which ranked 18th in the NFL. That sack total was a steady decline from the AFC-leading 48 sacks they notched in 2011.

Despite the drop in sacks, the Ravens still went on to win the Super Bowl and became the first Super Bowl winner since the 2001 New England Patriots to have a negative sack differential (37 sacks notched, 38 sacks allowed).

"Sacks are a reflection of the amount of pressure a defense can get on quarterbacks," Hensley wrote. "But, in the Ravens' case, sacks don't necessarily equate to success."

Analysis of Projected Starting Lineup

The regular season is still more than two months away, and a lot can happen between now and Sept. 5.

But Pro Football Focus put together an analysis of the Ravens' projected starting lineup, looking at both sides of the ball. The analysis puts players into categories based on their grades from last season and expectations for this year.

The Ravens have just one player who earned the "Elite" distinction, meaning he is one of the best three to four players in the NFL at his position. That player is right guard Marshal Yanda, widely considered one of the top offensive linemen in the league.

Behind Yanda, the Ravens have six players in the "High Quality" category, including Joe Flacco, Ray Rice, Terrell Suggs, Lardarius Webb, Torrey Smith and Haloti Ngata.

"What to do with Joe Flacco?" analyst Neil Hornsby wrote. "A player who was so average in the regular season he rated below Carson Palmer and Matthew Stafford, but was brilliant when it mattered. In the end I said, 'he turns a corner,' and went 'High Quality.'"

One of the big surprises in the ratings was that Dumervil received only an "Average" ranking, and a marginal review from Hornsby.

"Dumervil hasn't played really well for a few years now and could go either way," Hornsby wrote. "If he exceeds this level we are looking at a very good defensive line."

Roethlisberger Has Sights Set On Bradshaw's Mark

While the Ravens have expectations to get back to the Super Bowl this season, their biggest rival has his sights on adding more hardware to his trophy room.

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is eying the mark set by former Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw, who has four Super Bowl rings to his name.

 "I want to pass Terry Bradshaw by getting more Super Bowl wins," Roethlisberger said during a recent appearance in London. "That's our expectations in Pittsburgh. ... There is no other franchise I would rather play for than the Pittsburgh Steelers."  

Roethlisberger already has two rings, but writer Chris Wesseling thinks that it's a long shot for him to top Bradshaw's mark.

"Even with the backing of one of the NFL's most consistently competitive franchises, that's a tall order," Wesseling wrote.  The Steelers' defensive nucleus is declining with age while the offense just lost its top playmaker to the Miami Dolphins. Simply put, the pipeline has run dry.

"Even if Roethlisberger plays at an MVP level for the next half-decade, he could be the one player keeping this team afloat. The surrounding talent doesn't support an annual run at the Lombardi Trophy."  

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