By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun
9:07 PM EDT, April 22, 2013
When Michael Huff arrived at team headquarters last month, it didn't mean the Ravens were suddenly set at safety.
With free safety Ed Reed signing as a free agent with the Houston Texans and strong safety Bernard Pollard cut from the roster, filling the void created by their departures remains a job only halfway done.
Signing Huff to a three-year, $6 million contract gives the Ravens a starting free safety to replace Reed, but the team still hopes to find a talented safety with enough versatility to potentially line up at either spot.
Although the Ravens still have James Ihedigbo — a veteran who has started in the NFL — their need intersects with a strong incoming class of safeties in the NFL draft.
"I think the Ravens should definitely go draft the best safety they can find," said draft analyst Russ Lande, scouting director of National Football Post and a former NFL scout with the Cleveland Browns and St. Louis Rams. "It makes a lot of sense for them to go get a plug-in-and-play type of guy. These guys know what they're doing, so I would imagine they'll find a good one."
General manager Ozzie Newsome acknowledged earlier this month at a news conference that the Ravens could draft a safety in any round. And the Ravens have devoted a considerable amount of resources and time to evaluating safeties with visits, private workouts and interviews at the NFL scouting combine.
"I think it's a great group of guys," Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said. "There are a lot of guys this year. We've looked at a lot of them, obviously. We spent a lot of time on all of those players, and I think it's an exciting group. Ozzie has said there's a good chance that we will take at least one safety at some point in the draft. Numbers-wise, I think that's very accurate."
If the Ravens do use their first-round draft pick (No. 32 overall) to select a safety, Florida's Matt Elam and Florida International's Jonathan Cyprien are regarded as the top possibilities.
At 6 feet and 217 pounds, Cyprien has impressed NFL teams with his hitting ability and intelligence, and he is regarded as an ascending draft prospect. He had 13 visits and private workouts, including one this week for Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer.
"Cyprien is interesting because teams were all over on him," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "He's got some minor medical concerns with some teams, but he's a big, good-looking kid with excellent movement skills, and I've heard him all over the board from kind of first round all the way down to the third round. So, he's kind of a wild card there."
With a 4.6 time in the 40-yard dash, a 38-inch vertical leap and a strong Senior Bowl performance, Cyprien had 93 tackles and four interceptions at Florida International last season. An All-Sun Belt Conference selection, Cyprien has bench pressed 225 pounds 18 times and has a 9-foot, 11-inch broad jump.
"Cyprien is a big, thickly-built kid who fits the mold of what NFL teams are looking for," Lande said. "He's a big hitter who has flashed in coverage. He stays square. There's nothing physically he can't do. I think he's a sure-fire starter as a rookie. I think there's a chance he's gone by the Ravens' pick."
Matt Elam, the younger brother of NFL free agent safety Abram Elam, is a 5-foot-10, 208-pound junior who finished his career at Florida with
176 tackles, six interceptions, three forced fumbles and 19 pass deflections. Last season, Elam had 76 tackles, 11 for losses, two sacks, one forced fumble and four interceptions.
Although Elam is regarded as a big-time hitter who might start out at strong safety, the All-Southeastern Conference selection is confident that he possesses the cover skills to play either spot.
"I play very hard, and I like to strike people," Elam said during the NFL combine. "I feel that's what helps me stand out the most, but I'm very versatile. I can cover slot receivers. I can go down and cover. I can go in the box and tackle. I'm very confident in myself. I feel that I can do a lot of things for teams — special teams, covering, tackling."
Elam ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43, and he has a 35-inch vertical leap. His highlight tape shows several knockout-style collisions.
"I think Elam would fit in well with the Ravens' style of play," NFL Network draft analyst Dan Jeremiah said. "He's definitely a tough guy who was very productive in a major conference."
Some analysts have downgraded Elam's draft ranking, however, due to his lack of height.
"I see a violent player against the run with great instincts, but he's a little bit stiff and he's a short player," said Lande, who regards Elam as a third-round prospect who might get overdrafted. "To draft a safety that short high in the draft, they have to be rare athletically, and he's not a rare athlete. He's a good athlete who doesn't change directions that well.
"In the first round, I think he's a big gamble. [Former Indianapolis Colts safety] Bob Sanders was a rare special athlete, and he went in the second round. You're fighting two battles with Elam: He's short and he's not a great athlete."
DeCosta mentioned several safeties behind Texas' Kenny Vaccaro, the top player at the position — Elam, Cyprien, D.J. Swearinger (South Carolina), J.J. Wilcox (Georgia Southern) and Georgia's Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams. Fresno State's Phillip Thomas is also highly regarded by NFL teams.
DeCosta didn't discuss Louisiana State junior Eric Reid, a mobile 6-1, 213-pound All-American selection who could play either safety position, or Shamarko Thomas, a speedy Syracuse player who's undersized at 5-9.
"Reid wouldn't be a reach for the Ravens because he's a big-league athlete," Lande said. "He's a tremendous kid off the field. He has all the physical tools, but he's a little inconsistent."
Swearinger has been lauded for his man-to-man cover skills and leadership. He had 244 career tackles, six interceptions, four forced fumbles and 22 pass deflections for the Gamecocks. As a senior, Swearinger had 79 tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two return touchdowns.
Swearinger has experience at both safety positions and has also lined up at cornerback and nickel back, but he lacks elite speed — 4.65 in the 40-yard dash.
"I have great ball skills. I've played every position in the back end," Swearinger said. "I'm a versatile player. I'm not only just a safety, I'm an athlete. I want to be a ball hawk. I'm the best safety in this draft class because I'm a leader first and foremost.
"I have instincts that coaches can't coach. You can't coach instincts. I have great ball skills, great feet and hips. I'm going to stay in that film room and be a hard worker day in and day out."
NFL Draft: Ranking the safeties
Player School Ht. Wt.
1. Kenny Vaccaro Texas 6-0 214
2. Matt Elam Florida 5-10 208
3. Jonathan Cyprien Florida International 6-0 217
4. D.J. Swearinger South Carolina 5-11 208
5. Eric Reid LSU 6-1 213
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun