“The veteran quarterbacks have a target on me because I’m young and it’s my first year in the system, so I’m expecting it,” Elam said. “I’m relying on my skills and how I’m studying because it keeps me confident and improving. I love learning, I love improving. I want to be the best I can be.”
The Ravens have entrusted Elam with the starting job two games into his NFL career, benching veteran Michael Huff after a subpar season-opening performance against the Denver Broncos.
Now, Elam hopes to justify their belief that he can become the long-term replacement for Ed Reed, the dynamic former NFL defensive player of the year who joined the Texans in March on a three-year, $15 million contract.
The Ravens know there will be a learning curve as Elam gets acclimated to the NFL.
“The biggest thing about a safety is you’re in the middle of it,” Coach John Harbaugh said. “If you’re not tackling well inside, people are going to run the ball on you. You’re the last stop, so you’ve got to stay on top of different kinds of passes.
“It’s a discipline-oriented position, and that’s a little tougher for a younger guy who hasn’t seen everything. They’ll be going after him with double moves and play-action passes. He’s going to see a lot of challenging looks.”
The book on Elam is still in its opening chapter, as opponents build scouting reports on the compact former consensus all-American from Florida.
What’s not under scrutiny is his physical nature. Elam was a violent hitter in college, launching backs and receivers airborne with collisions.
“Matt was easily the most physical hitter in the draft and is ready for the bright lights,” former Philadelphia Eagles scout John Middlekauf said. “In this league, coaches are going to make him earn his stripes. Is he ever going to be Ed Reed? Probably not, but I think he’ll be an excellent football player because he’s a Ravens kind of guy who epitomizes the culture of that city and is a perfect fit for the AFC North.
“The hardest part as a free safety is you have to orchestrate everything,” Middlekauf said. “The Texans have stud tight ends and receivers. He’s going to have to not get tricked with his eyes when they try to manipulate him. The Ravens signed up for some growing pains, but they did the right thing benching Huff and getting Matt on the field.”
At 5 feet 10, 206 pounds, Elam has the requisite speed and nasty streak. That’s just a starting point, though.
“It will be tough because no rookie just takes over and dominates,” said former NFL safety Matt Bowen, who writes about the NFL for Bleacher Report. “As talented as Matt is, there will be times when he’ll make rookie mistakes. His teammates can’t think, ‘Well, Ed Reed would have made that play.’ Ed Reed isn’t there anymore.