Baltimore Ravens safety Matt Elam had a rough rookie campaign, as he was forced to play out of position at free safety. While he didn’t struggle too much in coverage this past season, it was clear both in the college and pros that coverage isn’t Elam’s strong suit as a safety. He’s best at making plays and tackling the ball-carrier in run support, and he always looked better as a strong safety in-the-box when he starred for the Florida Gators. I’ve always been a fan of Elam’s game, and he has plenty of instincts in run defense and intangibles. Despite playing out-of-position and generally being subpar as a rookie, Elam knew the offense and showed positive play in run support. More importantly, he got better in coverage as the year progressed, and that’s the most important takeaway of them all. Even though he struggled, he was a lot better than Michael Huff, who was a rather surprising free agent bust at FS and forced Elam to start at free safety (James Ihedigbo would have been a disaster at FS).
According to Jeff Zrebiec of the Baltimore Sun, Matt Elam is expected to move to his more natural position of strong safety in his sophomore year in the NFL. This will allow the Ravens to replace Ihedigbo, who is hitting free agency after a surprisingly strong 2013 season. There is no way the Ravens spent a first-round pick on Elam for him to be a third safety or play at an unnatural position, so this is the most logical move for Ozzie Newsome and the rest of the Ravens organization to make.
So what should the Ravens do at free safety? If they are going to play Elam in-the-box, then they will have someone who can cover TEs and other intermediate targets at what should be a quality level, as well as an instinctive safety who also figures to play the run with critical tenacity. However, the Ravens defense could use some top-notch deep coverage to fill out any weaknesses over-the-top and prevent the defense from being put in a pinch if a corner gets burned by a speed demon. Unfortunately, the free agent market for free safeties is rather poor, and I highly doubt they would break the bank on a guy like Jairus Byrd. That leaves the draft as the most logical option for this team, and they could find a quality FS after the first round, since no safety other than Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix is worth a first. In my view, Jimmie Ward would be the perfect pick for the Ravens at FS, since he’s easily the best coverage safety in the draft.
As for Elam, he had 77 tackles last season and is a smart player with a good football pedigree and plenty of upside. His run defense is only going to get better, and the Ravens should be able to coach him up into being at least an average player in coverage, particularly against TEs and on underneath routes. Adding a true FS to pair with Elam would also accentuate his skills, and I would be intrigued by the thought of him and Ward playing as a young safety tandem, so hopefully the Ravens are in a position to pull Ward at a reasonable draft-day price. Ward was so good in coverage that he played in the slot at times at Northern Illinois, and he was a Senior Bowl standout who is also very physical with his hands (part of what helped him cover the slot for the Huskies).