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Disappointing season has Ravens' Matt Elam looking for improvement

The Ravens heaped praise on Matt Elam when they drafted him, but his first two season have been a struggle.

Standing at his locker at the close of another disappointing individual season, Ravens strong safety Matt Elam was at a loss for words as he reluctantly discussed his status heading into a pivotal offseason.

The 2013 first-round pick after a consensus All-American career at Florida lost his starting job midway through the season despite being shifted from free safety back to his natural strong safety position during the offseason. Elam wound up starting 11 of 16 games, but he finished with just 47 tackles, a half-sack, zero interceptions, five pass deflections and a forced fumble.

"I just want to improve my game and get better at small things and get consistent for the most part," Elam said. "I feel like did well. I improved toward the end of the year. I got better at small things. It helped me stay consistent."

That wasn't exactly the case, though. Elam led the Ravens with 16 missed tackles during the regular season. And Elam allowed New England Patriots wide receiver Danny Amendola to twist out of his grasp for a touchdown during the Ravens' AFC divisional round loss.

Tackling was supposed to be Elam's strong suit when the Ravens selected him 32nd overall. He had 154 tackles, 22 for loss, and six interceptions during his final two seasons of college. Elam had 78 tackles, 11 for losses and four interceptions as a junior before declaring early for the draft.

When the Ravens drafted Elam, the younger brother of former NFL safety Abram Elam, general manager Ozzie Newsome lauded him for his speed and called him one of the better tacklers he'd seen in recent years.

"It was fun watching him play," Newsome said in the spring of 2013. "It's been a long time [since I watched] a player on tape and play after play you just go, 'Wow! Oh! Wow!' He was just somebody that the way he played on tape is the way you have to play in the AFC North."

Assistant general manager Eric DeCosta described Elam as infectious in terms of style of play, noting his aggressiveness, toughness and coverage skills.

There just hasn't been much growth from Elam, who's moved around the defense due to injuries to other players. That included having him play a nickel position that gave him more coverage responsibilities. That assignment didn't appear to play to Elam's strengths, which are primarily providing run support, blitzing and covering in short areas.

Elam was the lowest-graded player on the Ravens' defense and the 78th-ranked safety in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.

Elam allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 38 of 53 passes thrown in his direction (71.7 percent) for 500 yards and three touchdowns.

He was demoted in midseason, losing his starting job as Will Hill became the starting free safety with Darian Stewart operating as the primary starting strong safety. Elam acknowledged frustration about his playing time and performance throughout the season, but little changed.

During the Ravens' wild-card playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Elam did have an encouraging game as he contributed a tackle, intercepted a pass on a two-point conversion and was sounder in coverage than usual.

Against the Patriots, though, Elam allowed two completions on three passes thrown in his direction, including the touchdown to Amendola. Tom Brady had a 133.3 quarterback rating throwing at Elam.

Now, Elam has reached an early crossroads in his career, and as he left for the offseason he said he wasn't sure about his exact plans.

Last year, Elam went back to school and worked in retail part-time at a Finish Line store in Gainesville, Fla., with the idea to gain expertise and eventually own a store. 

"I haven't decided anything yet," Elam said. "I can only speak for myself and what I've got planned for this year. I haven't decided yet for this offseason."

In his season-ending news conference, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he could see some strides from Elam despite the results.

"His practice production and effort did improve," Harbaugh said. "And he's never done a bad job with that. ... But I think he was more consistent over the last six or seven weeks than he had been at any time since he'd been here before. He really put a lot of effort into it and did improve as a player because of that."

awilson@baltsun.com
twitter.com/RavensInsider

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