FROM TRAGEDY TO TRIUMPH MEET RAVENS SAFETY MATT ELAM
The defending Super Bowl Champion Ravens took the field today at their training facility in Owings Mills, MD, with a substantially different look than they had when they walked off the Superdome turf in February, following their win over the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.
On defense, through either free agency or retirement, the Ravens will line-up vs. the Broncos missing seven players that contributed when Baltimore left the Mile High City last January with an AFC Divisional playoff win. The list includes two future Hall of Famers in Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, as well as key players like LB’s Dannell Ellerbe and Paul Kruger and CB Carey Williams.
Offensively, they lost their other post season MVP in WR Anquan Boldin, who was traded to the team the Ravens beat to capture their second Lombardi. Changes and adversity are nothing new in the Charm City. Earning their second Super Bowl title did not come easy for the Ravens.
During the 2012 offseason, the Ravens lost four regular starters (G Ben Grubbs, DL Cory Redding, LB Jarret Johnson and K Billy Cundiff) and two contributors who started several games (WR Lee Evans and S Tom Zbikowski) and the team’s defensive coordinator (Chuck Pagano).
The Ravens also began the season without arguably their best defensive player in Terrell Suggs, who injured his Achilles, which required surgery during the offseason. By week seven, two more of the units’ top players were lost for significant time when LB Ray Lewis and CB Lardarius Webb suffered potential season-ending injuries. While No’s 52 and 55 would return, Webb did not but as they always seem to do, the Ravens and their philosophy of next man up took over and the result was a Super Bowl championship.
The Ravens will take the field this season with the most turnover of any defending champion in the Super Bowl era. Ozzie Newsome and his front office showed during this offseason why they are one of the best units not just in the NFL but also in all of sports.
Newsome signed more than adequate replacements on the defensive side of the ball and will watch as he and head coach John Harbaugh allow the next man up philosophy try to take hold once again during camp when it comes to some of the offensive positions, such as wide receiver and center.
With camp starting, it’s time to really get to know the players that were not there in February but will try to get Baltimore back to the Super Bowl when it travels to the New York/ New Jersey area this Feb. One of the biggest roles needing to be filled is the safety position. Gone is future Hall of Fame safety Ed Reed and his 61 regular season career interceptions. Reed chose the Texans over the Ravens to finish out his career and then Baltimore released the hard-hitting Bernard Pollard, who was quickly scooped up by the Tennessee Titans.
This left a glaring vacancy in the back part of the secondary but the Ravens answer would be a similar one. Newsome elected to build through the draft and acquire a veteran during free agency at a price comfortable for the Ravens salary cap situation. They drafted Matt Elam in the first round, just as they had done with Reed back in 2002 when Newsome and company allowed another– at the time future and now Hall of Fame safety (Rod Woodson signed with Raiders) to finish his career elsewhere as well. They also signed the versatile Michael Huff from the Oakland Raiders this offseason and we will meet Huff in a few days.
With 10 selections during April’s draft, the Ravens filled many holes with players like Elam that could make an immediate impact to the roster in 2013. Aside from Elam they got an inside linebacker, defensive lineman, outside linebacker, fullback, offensive tackle/guard, defensive end, center, wide receiver and cornerback. “We feel very, very good about what we’ve added to our football team for the 2013 season,” said Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome during the press conference following the draft.
So let us meet, a little more in depth, the Ravens first selection in April’s draft.
Introducing Pick No. 32 in Round 1 Safety Matt Elam (Florida)
FROM TRAGEDY COMES TRIUMPH:
One of the things you may not know about Matt Elam is that he has suffered a great deal of tragedy in his young life. Far more tragedy than any one person three or four times his age should have to endure. Elam grew up in a rough part of southern Florida, just outside Riviera Beach. It is a short drive from the area called “The Muck” in Pahokee and Belle Glade, Fla. Elam said there were many kids his age that also lost loved ones. “It was very tough,” he said of growing up in the area.
How tough, tough enough to claim the lives of his older sister and brother. As he tried to grow into a teenager and young adult, two of his siblings, Christina and Donald, were murdered in their Florida hometown as kids. A schoolmate’s brother, who came to get the final word after a scuffle earlier that day, shot Christina, 12, in a park. Matt, just 8 years old at the time, ran to hold his dying sister.
One of his older brothers, Donald, was killed nine years later, in 2008, in the very same park. Elam’s father, Donald C., died of cancer days after his sophomore season ended at the University of Florida. Elam struggled at first with the death of his sister and even had to change schools but a strong support system with his mom and brother Abram, who as an undrafted player went on to play for the Dolphins, Chiefs, Cowboys, Browns and Jets during his seven-year NFL career, helped him pull through.
As settled as he could be in high school, Elam began to excel. Coming out of high school Elam was a five-star prospect who was rated the No. 1 safety and the No. 10-overall player in the nation according to Scout.co. At William T. Dwyer (West Palm Beach, FL) HS he was selected as the Gatorade Player of the Year and named Mr. Football for the State of Florida as a senior in 2009. Elam was named a 2010 Parade High School All-American and No. 12 on the Top 150 Dream Team by Prep Star Magazine.
He played running back and rushed for 1,883 yards and 27 TDs as a senior, including 918 yards and 13 TDs, leading Dwyer to a 14-1 record and the 4A State Title. Elam rushed for 187 yards and four TDs in the 2009 state title game and was also selected as the Palm Beach County Player of the Year that season.
Elam elected to forego his senior season at Florida to declare for the 2013 NFL Draft. He did so after being voted First-team All-American by the Associated Press, The NFL Draft Report, The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports. During his career at Florida, Elam started 26 games and saw action in 39. He finished his Gators career with 176 tackles (124 solo), 5 sacks (-20 yards), 24 TFL, 2 FFs, 1 FR, 13 PD and 6 INTs (returned for 91 yards). He was voted a team captain and finished his final season at Florida with 76 tackles (58 solo), 2 sacks, 11 TFL, 5 PD and a team-high 4 INTs. He helped anchor a Gators defense that allowed 14.5 points and 287.5 yards per game, both marks ranking fifth best in the nation. Florida also finished No. 2 in the nation with a 95.6 pass efficiency defense.
Intercepting passes and barking out defensive signals during rookie camp this past spring, Elam picked up where he left off at Florida. The 5-foot-10, 210-pound Elam impressed Ravens HC John Harbaugh with his leadership ability by taking charge in the secondary with his knowledge about the defensive scheme.
“Matt really picked things up quickly, same for [second-round inside linebacker] Arthur [Brown],” Harbaugh said. “He really did a nice job of communicating in the back end which isn’t usual for a rookie. Most rookie defensive backs and all defensive players have a tough time with the communication part because they’re not confident enough to make the calls. “He’s smart. He picked it up quickly. He jumped back there quickly and made the calls with force. He was very forceful back there and played fast. He looked good.”
Elam is not only football smart but he did just fine negotiating his rookie contract. The Ravens first round pick did not hire an agent and asserted himself well during the process. Actually, his older brother older brother, Abram was by his side every step of the way. According to numerous sources knowledge of the details of the deals signed by Elam and the players taken one spot before him (Cowboys center Travis Frederick) and one spot behind him (Jaguars safety Jonathan Cyprien) and the player taken in the same slot last year (Giants running back David Wilson), Elam negotiated a fair and appropriate deal.
His contract has a signing bonus of $3.30 million and a total value of $6.76 million, which fits in the slot between Frederick ($3.37 million and $6.87 million) and Cyprien ($2.35 million and $5.46 million). The signing bonus matches Wilson’s to the dollar (technically, $3,301,456), whose total payout was $6.684 million.
According to those same sources and reported by Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, the only criticism of Elam’s deal is that, his signing bonus should have been a little higher. The first three years of Elam’s deal is fully guaranteed, something Wilson got in the same slot last year. By doing his own contract, Elam saved $202,800 in agent fees. If Frederick paid the maximum of three percent to his agent that would mean Elam got a better deal but Frederick will not pay state income taxes, because he will be playing in Texas.
While Elam may need an agent when the time comes to negotiate his second contract, most draft picks can now do their own deals, if they can get their hands on the information regarding the value of deals given to other players drafted in the same vicinity, and in the same slot last year.
Elam was known as a big hitter while playing at Florida and is expected to compete with Michael Huff and James Ihedigbo for the starting safety jobs. Let’s be honest here, it would be a surprise if Elam isn’t looking into the Denver backfield at Peyton Manning when the Broncos take their first offensive snap of the season on September 5.
During a one June OTA session, Elam was covering the deep middle of the field when Joe Flacco launched a pass his way. He sprinted to the football and made a leaping catch in traffic to pull down the interception.
He was so excited that he forgot he was no longer in college therefore not ruled down once his knee hit the ground without being touched. He got up and ran about 20 yards before coaches blew the play dead. “That was a great feeling to pick Joe off, the Super Bowl champion,” Elam said. “It’s always great to pick off a great quarterback.”
According to the Ravens web site, secondary coach Teryl Austin is more than impressed with his new safety. “Matt Elam is what we expected and maybe a little bit more. He’s going through the usual changes that a rookie goes through, but he is smart. He’s tough, he’s fast, he gets football, and I think he is going to be a fine player for us soon.”
That praise is eerily similar to the praise Ed Reed, the man Elam is replacing, when he came to Baltimore in 2002 as the Ravens first round (24th overall) selection in that April’s draft.
According to Garrett Downing’s piece, Elam came to Baltimore with a reputation as a player who always seemed to be around the football. He’s a hard hitter who can come up in the box to defend the run, and he also has speed in coverage, notching six interceptions over the last two years.” Again, sounds like something we heard during the summer of 2002. He’s taken reps with the first team and looks right at home in the defense.
If Elam continues to progress, it is likely he could start all 16 games, as Reed did during his rookie season. The Texans new safety had 71 tackles, 1 sack and 5 interceptions during his rookie season in Baltimore. While it is never fair to compare a rookie to a future Hall of Famer, Elam is off to a hot start and he expects to get better each day.
“I feel very confident. I’m coming along, catching the defense fast, so I feel great,” Elam said towards the end of the OTA’s. “If you have a lot of confidence, then you play well. You feel highly about yourself, then you’re going to play well. I feel like that’s what it’s all about.
Matt Elam’s story is an inspirational one and one that amidst all of the off the field issues the NFL has endured with knuckleheads such as Aaron Hernandez, who ironically also attended Florida, the Ravens and their fans can take pride in the fact that Elam is likely to be a leader on and off the field.
Matt Elam’s Twitter handle is @ElamVsElo and you may want to get involved in the movement #eatgreedy….just saying Ravens fans.
Following Day 1 of Training Camp here is what Elam had to say to reporters:
On what the first day of training camp was like: “Very fun, very exciting – a great opportunity for me to get better and improve. So, like I said, I’m just going out there to have fun and keep on improving.”
On what contract negotiations were like and what kind of advice he received: “I felt like I built a great team that gave me knowledge and taught me a lot of great things I didn’t know. So, I felt like I built the team that helped me learn a lot of things about a contract. I mean, I knew all the language and everything about the contract. So, I felt like the team I built helped me out a lot.”
On if he decided not to hire an agent to save money: “Yeah, I saved a lot of money. It was beneficial to me and my family, so I felt – like I said – I’m invested in the program and to the organization. And like I said, I built the team that helped me, that gave me the knowledge and taught me a lot of things for me to look over the contract and know it to a ‘T.’”
On if he had his brother, Abram or lawyers on his contract team: “I just feel like I built a great team that gave me the knowledge and gave me the ideas to help me along this way.”
On what it means to him that John Harbaugh says he expects him to be a big factor: “That’s an honor. That’s a great opportunity for me to come in and keep on improving and keep on learning, and hopefully I can be great one day.”
On if he expects the same from himself as Harbaugh does: “I’ve got very high expectations for myself. I feel like if I go out and keep on improving, it will take care of itself.”
On how much he has to balance his instincts and staying within a scheme: “I feel like I can rely on my skills and the way I work. And they give me confidence – the way I work and the way I study – it gives me confidence to help me. I can play fast and use my instincts to the ‘T.’ So, like I said, the way I work and the way I study, it gives me the confidence.”
On if he reported lighter to camp: “I feel like I had to. I had to run around a little more. I lost eight pounds over the summer.”
On the adjustment from being a college All-American to NFL rookie: “I really don’t think about that. I just go out and keep on improving to be the best I can be. People have high expectations of me. 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.”
On why there is still optimism to get to the Super Bowl despite changes in the defense: “I just feel like it’s the way we work and the way we push each other. The older guys bring in the younger guys and teach the younger guys. And the way we stick together and the way we work together on the field, I feel like that will take care of itself. If we can continue to work and improve, then the sky is the limit.”
On if it is motivation seeing teammates with Super Bowl rings: “That gives me a lot of motivation. It gives me hunger. It gives me desire. It makes me want to go out – and I see what they do and see how they work to get the ring – and that makes me want to go out and work the same way, so I can do whatever I can to help the team get another ring.”
On his Twitter account and the hash tag #EatGreedy: “I trademarked a thing called ‘Eat Greedy.’ Basically, it means grinding major – making sacrifices to be the best that you can be at anything you do. You know what I’m saying? I try to bring the kids up and be … Basically, I like giving the kids the opportunity and make kids feel like they have a chance. I try to keep that going and let the kids know that they have a great opportunity.”
On what NFL players he has reached out to for advice: “A lot of them. Anquan [Boldin] for one – he and my brother are real close. Eric Berry – there were a lot of players that I reached out to for the help, for the contract and different off-the-field marketing things. Just the people that have the great experiences and been out there to learn new things. So, I’ve reached out to a lot of NFL players to learn new things. I love to learn. That’s one thing.”
On the transition of coming to his first NFL training camp: “I feel like it’s a great opportunity for me. I feel like I’m in a great situation, and I feel like I’m around a bunch of great guys, a bunch of winners and champions. So, I feel like there wasn’t a better situation for me. It’s an honor to be around these guys and work with these guys.”
On if they were trying to focus on anything in particular at this practice: “I mean, we’re just continuing to get better and work on the small things and continuing to get better at your craft to be great. You go out and you work to be great every day.”
On his weight: “I’m down to 200 pounds right now.”