"I feel like we stuck together and we did the small things well, so that helped us in the end," Matt Elam said when asked to reflect on the season for the secondary. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
Will Hill and Matt Elam are both making their case to win the Ravens' strong safety job.
That's one of the tightest competitions for the Ravens as they try to determine which of the two former Florida Gators should line up opposite new starting free safety Kendrick Lewis.
Both have lined up with the first-team defense during the Ravens' organized team activities this spring.
Hill was suspended for the first six games of last season for violating the NFL substance-abuse policy due to testing positive for marijuana while playing for the New York Giants. By the end of the season, Hill had regained a lot of his old form and was playing well. That included returning an interception for a touchdown when he picked off New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees on a pass intended for tight end Jimmy Graham.
Listed at 6 feet 1 and 207 pounds, Hill looks much bigger this offseason, particularly in the upper body. He has been a regular at the Ravens' offseason conditioning program, and it shows.
"I almost say light-years ahead of where he was last year," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said last week of Hill, who had 42 tackles in eight starts last season. "Came in kind of late and under challenging circumstances that he was in and missed six weeks [last season] to start with, which is hard. You're off the field for six weeks, and a lot of rust builds up, especially a guy just learning the system. Here he is.
"He has been here every single day in the offseason that I'm aware of. Heck, he brought his family in here to work out with him when he was on his own. I see him pushing the stroller with his wife and his baby down the street here in Owings Mills. I just think he has really dug in to have a great season, and we'll see how it goes for him. But right now, he looks the part."
Elam lost his starting job last season even after moving back to his natural strong safety job. The 2013 first-round NFL draft pick has struggled in his first two NFL seasons, but has lost weight and appears leaner and quicker. The former consensus All-American has vowed to improve.
"I lost 5 percent body fat, I got myself stronger than I've ever been," Elam said in an interview last month. "I'm just ready go go to and break out this season. The offseason went well. I'm ready to start the season. I'm ready to play ball again."
During the Ravens' wild-card playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Elam had an encouraging game as he contributed a tackle, intercepted a pass on a two-point conversion and was sounder in coverage than usual.
"It really don't matter where they put me at," Elam said. "I prepare myself well enough in the offseason to be ready wherever I have to play at. That's where I'm going to be and I'm going to do a great job."
Elam said he's his own harshest critic, but he's not blind to the criticism he's faced.
"All I'll say is, I can't wait until September," Elam said. "I'm ready."
Hill has 132 tackles, three interceptions, two touchdowns, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in his career.
Hill has been suspended for a total of 14 games in three NFL seasons, including two four-game suspensions triggered by positive tests for Adderall and marijuana. The suspensions cost him a total of $405,882 and created an impression of unreliability.
Hill was arrested in 2011 in Florida for driving with a suspended license, was arrested in 2013 for nonpayment of child support, went through a divorce and has fathered four children with three women.
With the Ravens, though, Hill has been building trust and said he's dramatically changed his lifestyle. Rather than frequenting nightclubs, he's bowling and spending quiet nights at home with his daughter.
General manager Ozzie Newsome assigned a $1.542 million restricted free agent tender to Hill this offseason, which he's signed.
"I spend a lot of time with my daughter," Hill said in an interview last month. "I'm at the training facility. I ain't going anywhere. Yeah, it's a good relationship with the Ravens. Ozzie had a lot of faith in me, and I had a lot of faith in him. That's my best friend right now. To have me come here and help me with my life, it means a lot."