Matt Elam and Ravens coaches had built up a considerable amount of hope that the strong safety would have a resurgent year following two disappointing NFL seasons.
Those hopes died Sunday with the news that Elam either fully or partially tore his biceps on Saturday, according to an NFL source. The injury is expected to end the 2013 first-round draft pick’s season.
Although the results of a magnetic resonance imaging exam weren’t known Sunday night, sources said the Ravens are not counting on Elam to play this season, as he’ll likely require surgery and four-to-six months of rehabilitation.
Elam was injured while covering a wide receiver during the first day of full-contact drills. His biceps doesn’t have its normal shape, strength or range of motion, according to a source.
“I haven’t heard on the MRI yet, but I’m not real optimistic right now,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said Sunday night. “I haven’t heard a final word, but it wasn’t very optimistic [Saturday] talking to the doctors. He was reaching, the receiver ran by him and kind of reached for him and caught him.”
A consensus All-American at Florida, Elam was competing for the strong safety job with veteran Will Hill. Although Hill was regarded as the frontrunner to win the starting position, Elam had made progress and figured to receive significant playing time, regardless.
Elam had worked diligently to prepare for this season, getting down to a career-low 202 pounds and 8 percent body fat.
“I've been working hard and eating right,” Elam told The Baltimore Sun on Friday. “I'm doing everything the right way and getting myself right. I feel really good.”
Elam had reacted the way the organization had hoped after general manager Ozzie Newsome publicly said he must improve. Harbaugh had noticed a major difference in Elam’s professionalism and maturity.
“I’m sure it’s very disappointing for him, and he told me that,” Harbaugh said. “Here’s a guy who came back with a renewed attitude. He had a better approach than he’d had the first two years. He just had grown up a lot. He’s very serious and he was in tremendous shape, and then he gets a fluke injury. That’s disappointing.”
Elam led the Ravens with 16 missed tackles last season. In the the team’s AFC divisional round playoff loss to the New England Patriots, he allowed wide receiver Danny Amendola to break a tackle and score a touchdown.
He was the lowest-graded player on the Ravens defense and the 78th-ranked safety in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 38 of 53 passes thrown in his direction (71.7 percent) for 500 yards and three touchdowns. He often played out of position, at nickel back, because of the Ravens' injuries at cornerback
“Matt Elam’s a very good player, a very good guy,” free safety Kendrick Lewis said. “The short time that we had to prepare and get ready for this season was cut short [Saturday], but I’ve seen a guy who works hard, who comes out every day and just shows his work ethic and shows his work to this team.
“That’s going to be a big blow to us going forward, but in this business it’s the next man up, but me, Will, all of our safeties have to step it up another notch because we lost a brother. That was a tough one and I wish him well with his injury and recovery, but everybody’s got to step their game up a notch.
Starting 11 of 16 games last season, Elam finished with 50 tackles, a half-sack, zero interceptions, four pass deflections and a forced fumble. He was replaced as the starter in the middle of the season.
Without Elam, the Ravens will look to Hill to start at strong safety opposite Lewis, a former Houston Texans starter.
Hill had his moments as the Ravens’ starting free safety last year after serving a six-game suspension for a failed drug test for marijuana that violated the NFL substance abuse policy and led to his release from the New York Giants.
Although still listed at 6 feet 1, 207 pounds, Hill appears to be much bigger in the upper body after being a regular in the Ravens’ offseason weightlifting program this year.
“Will has done a great job,” Harbaugh said. “I think Will has had a great camp. He knows the defense now inside and out. He’s been here for a while and he’s flying around out there. He looks like a really sturdy guy from what I can see. He made some plays on the ball out there [Sunday].”
Hill had 42 tackles in eight regular-season games last season and returned an interception for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints.
The former blue-chip recruit from St. Peter's Prep in Jersey City, N.J., has 132 tackles, three interceptions, two touchdowns, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in three NFL seasons.
“I think he has been having a good training camp,” defensive coordinator Dean Pees said of Hill. “I thought he had a good spring. I think he has shown up a lot here in camp. I think the thing he does best is when you put the pads on, because he’s a physical-type player. He’s a big safety. He got thrown into it last year if you really think about it. I mean, he hasn’t had a lot of experience with us, so he keeps getting better, too.
“He’s not a rookie, but at the same time, he doesn’t have as much playing experience [that] sometimes I think we all think he has. So, he’s still learning. But again, I’m really pleased with the way those guys are working. Yes, there are times when we give up the plays that we don’t want to, but for the most part, they’re competing, and I really like our aggressiveness back there.”