Matt Elam lurked as Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco stood tall and did his thing on Tuesday.
As he often does, the 21-year-old hid behind a wall of big guys, waiting to make his next move.
It’s not exactly what you think. Elam’s first training camp practice with the Ravens had wrapped up minutes before, and he sat on a bench as a large group of reporters, some of them large, lobbed questions at the quarterback. Elam wore a sleeveless white athletic shirt and had slipped one of the severed sleeves over his head to keep sweat out of his eyes and his bushy beard. The summer sun gleamed off his diamond earrings.
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For the first time all afternoon, Elam was mostly still. He wasn’t stalking the defensive backfield before a snap. He wasn’t running alongside a running back, a tight end or a wide receiver. He wasn’t flying downhill toward whomever or whatever had the football in its grasp. He hardly moved until it was time for him to take Flacco’s place at the podium.
“Very fun, very exciting -- a great opportunity for me to get better and improve,” he said when asked to assess his afternoon.
On the field, Elam has been hyperactive and decisive since the team drafted him in the first round of April’s draft. And with Elam expected to start at strong safety this season, it is a positive that he is reacting instead of thinking about where should be going and what he should be doing when he gets there, as many rookies do.
There will surely be times when his instincts lead him astray as he adapts to the break-neck pace of the NFL, but Ravens coach John Harbaugh believes they are an asset.
“He’s definitely a natural,” Harbaugh said. “He’s got a gift for understanding the game from back there -- his spacing, his awareness of routes, his understanding of where he needs to be relative to the guys around him. He’s got a good feel for that, so he should progress really quickly.”
In 39 games at Florida, Elam made 176 tackles, including 24 for a loss. He recorded five sacks, forced two fumbles and picked off six passes, including a team-high four as a senior.
It seemed that on many of his plays for the Gators, Elam was around the football, a trend that continued during the offseason workouts that were open to the media this spring.
“Certainly he’ll make a few mistakes here and there, but Matt will make them fast,” Harbaugh said. “He’s a very aggressive player, very smart, and he’s going to be a key contributor for us.”
That aggression and intelligence was on display when Elam’s Gators hosted the Missouri Tigers in SEC play last fall.
On one play, Elam, who was lined up in the slot over a receiver, identified that a reverse was heading his way, eluded his blocker and dove to trip up the ballcarrier in the backfield.
On another, Elam manned centerfield as a deep safety and stayed home as the quarterback executed a half-hearted play-action fake. Soon, the pass came right to him for an easy pick.
On one more memorable play, Elam lined up as a deep safety on one half of the field, timed out a delayed blitz and attacked the quarterback. As the quarterback rolled right, Elam, instead of running around the blockers, changed course to blitz from the front to contain the quarterback in the pocket. Elam forced a throw away as he clobbered the quarterback.
“The way I work and the way I study, it gives me confidence to help me,” Elam said. “I can play fast and use my instincts to the ‘T.’”
Before Elam sat down, I planned on asking Flacco is Elam reminded him of anyone -- perhaps another bearded safety the Ravens drafted in the first round? -- but then Flacco said this.
“I have no idea who’s out there though when I’m playing,” Flacco said, getting a few chuckles. “I’m just trying to go wherever the defense isn’t. I honestly don’t have an extra eye on him or anything. I couldn’t have told you where he was on any of those plays, but he seems like a pretty good dude and a good football player from what you can see on tape.”
The tape from the two-minute drill late in Tuesday’s practice will show that Flacco completed three straight passes to rookie wide receiver Rashaad Carter with Elam, who gave up five inches in height to the undrafted free agent, failing to obstruct a passing lane.
But it was just one practice, one that featured few recognizable veterans. Elam’s instincts will really be tested Thursday afternoon when the rest of the team suits up for practice. Neither of Flacco’s eyes may be on him, but plenty of others will with him being the first-round pick of the defending champs and all.
“People have high expectations of me,” Elam said. “They want me to do great things, but I’ve got to live up to my own expectations. The way I work and the way I study, I feel like that will take care of itself.”