Matt Elam Set For His Baptism By Fire
It came as somewhat of a surprise when the Baltimore Ravens released starting SS Bernard Pollard this offseason. Pollard had fit in perfectly with the team’s culture and was a crucial part of its Super Bowl run. It seemed unlikely that GM Ozzie Newsome would have let Pollard leave without a replacement in mind and , once the draft came around, it was clear that he had identified Matt Elam has that replacement.
Elam, taken with the last pick of the first round, is expected to start Week 1. After a review of the rest of the team's offseason moves, it's obvious that he is not only going to be the team's starter but he will also be playing a similar role to the one Pollard vacated. Many teams have moved away from a prototypical strong safety and free safety, instead blending the two roles together into all-around safeties on the back end of the defense. But Baltimore, by adding Michael Huff and Elam, is bucking that trend.
Elam is going to slide seamlessly into the box-safety role for Baltimore because of his skill set, but there is going to be a lot of pressure on him to immediately translate his college success in the pros. Highly-drafted rookies usually need to perform, especially on a Super Bowl roster, but each of the Ravens' divisional rivals are expected to run offenses that will stress the role of the strong safety in Baltimore's defense.
When the Cincinnati Bengals drafted TE Tyler Eifert in the first round of the draft, they weren't just adding a dynamic game-changer at the tight-end position, they were adding him to an offense where he wouldn't be the focal point. That means that Eifert is going to be an afterthought since A.J. Green figures to be the central focus of the defensive gameplan. Jermaine Gresham, Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones will all pull away the Baltimore’s best cover defenders, leaving Elam to carry out the responsibility of battling with his fellow rookie. At the same time, Elam will also need to show the flexibility to cover Gresham and continue to be effective against the run.
Against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Elam's flexibility will be pushed even further. The Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell to balance their offense this year as the supposed perfect piece in Todd Haley's backfield, but that won't stop Ben Roethlisberger from extending plays or the team's fast wide receivers from working across the middle and making plays with the ball in his hands. Adding Markus Wheaton to Antonio Brown, Emmanuel Sanders, Jericho Cotchery (as well as a healthy Heath Miller at some point), will give the Steelers a variety of diverse receivers who excel at making plays over the middle of the field in different ways.
Flexibility shouldn’t be nearly as big of an issue against the Cleveland Browns, though. The Browns are expected to run a vertical passing offense that will pressure the Ravens' cornerbacks and Michael Huff more than Elam. However, the Browns didn't take Trent Richardson with the third overall pick in last year's draft to ignore him. Richardson figures to carry the offense as the main feature back. With his power, size and ability to make plays in the open field, Richardson is one of the last backs in the league any strong safety wants to see.
Obviously, Elam will have help on the field with a deep, veteran defensive line and excellent overall front seven playing ahead of him, but even safeties who play in the box are put on islands in the NFL. It can be a very lonely place for any defensive back, especially one playing such a pivotal role.
Elam was drafted in the first round to be the Baltimore’s long-term starter at strong safety, but that doesn't mean that he'll benefit from any excuses during his rookie season.