Is this a major injury? No. Is it a season thwarting injury? No.
Elam was slated to be the third safety on this team, nothing more. Kendrick Lewis is going to be the starting free safety and Will Hill has had the inside track for the strong safety position. With some uncertainty surrounding the safety position, Elam would have certainly seen snaps. But, the general thinking is that Lewis and Hill, barring injury, would be the mainstays. So really, Elam was more of an insurance policy if Lewis or Hill get injured and he provided some depth.
However, let’s examine the depth issue a little more closely. How much does a third safety actually play?
So, we aren’t talking too many snaps here. The Ravens have two experienced players in Anthony Levine and Brynden Trawick. The team also has an intriguing developmental prospect in undrafted free agent Nick Perry. And finally, waiting in the training room is Terrence Brooks. The Ravens will be fine.
What makes this injury to Elam so disappointing was the timing—for Elam and for the Ravens. By all accounts, the light bulb was starting to come on for Elam as he was having a strong offseason. It was a little shocking to hear that his work ethic was just starting to improve, but sometimes year three is when players start realizing their potential—Paul Kruger and Jimmy Smith are two recent players that this was true for.
This is not to suggest that this was going to be true for Elam. And that is why the timing of this injury is disappointing for the Ravens. The clock is ticking on Elam and the Ravens were hoping to get a clearer picture on what they have in Elam. Next year, the Ravens will have to decide if they want to exercise a fifth year option. (Here is an explanation of the fifth year option as it relates to 2012 draft picks.) In essence, the Ravens could have used this year to evaluate Elam further. The feeling here is he would have had to have a breakout year like Kruger and Smith to warrant an injury guaranteed salary in excess of $5 million.
Why has Elam struggled so badly?
Coming into the 2013 NFL draft, there was little debate who the top two safeties were—Kenny Vaccaro from the University of Texas and Elam from the University of Florida. However, there was a player rising on many draft boards and one player I thought was a better fit for the Ravens, Johnathan Cyprien from Florida International University.
Elam had a nice résumé coming from Florida—176 tackles, six interceptions, three forced fumbles, and 19 pass deflections—and he was named captain on the Gators during his junior year. This was the year that the Ravens were targeting leadership attributes in the draft, as four of the ten draft picks were team captains in college—Elam, middle linebacker Arthur Brown, defensive end John Simon, and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore.
There was some intrigue at the safety position because there were some teams at the end of the first round and beginning of the second round that would be targeting safeties. The 49ers were one of those teams. They 49ers traded up from the 31st pick to the 18th pick with the Dallas Cowboys and selected LSU safety Eric Reid. This left the Ravens choosing between Elam and Cyprien, if they were drafting for need at 32. Sure enough, the Ravens selected Elam at 32 and the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Cyprien with the very next pick, the 33rd overall pick and first pick in the second round.
Elam was known as a playmaker in college, but many wondered just how high his ceiling would be in the NFL. He was known to be a solid tackler coming out of college too, but that hasn’t exactly been the case in the NFL. According to Pro Football Focus’ tackling efficiency rating, Elam was the 23 ranked safety in 2013 and the 96 ranked safety in 2014 (he barely qualified as a safety in 2014 as he took less than 50 percent of his snaps as a safety).
When looking back at the 2013 draft, none of these safeties have truly blossomed. Reid has made a Pro Bowl and Cyprien had a respectable rookie year. Both took a step back in year two, but both fared better than Elam. Highlighted in this great article from Gordon McGuinness from Pro Football Focus, safety is a difficult position to learn on the fly.
Thrust Into Early Action
That last part, learning on the fly, is something that hindered Elam’s development. The 2013 season didn’t go as planned for the Ravens, on any level. The Ravens had hoped to start Ihedigbo at strong safety and they hoped to start free agent signee Michael Huff at free safety. Huff was horrendous in the season opener against Denver, saw less playing time in week two, and was cut by the Ravens after week four.
Elam was eased into the game plan for the Denver game, playing 13 of 74 snaps. After week one, Elam played 1034 of 1039 snaps—all as a free safety.
In reality, Elam was not terrible his rookie year. Per PFF, he graded in the middle of the pack in terms of coverage and the bottom third in tackling efficiency.
The real issue is that Elam has been miscast since his arrival in the NFL. He played free safety in his rookie year and he was mostly a nickel cornerback last year. In fact, of his 652 defensive snaps in 2014, Elam played 231 coverage snaps from the slot versus 171 snaps as a safety with run stopping responsibilities—79 of those snaps as an in-the-box safety. With all of the injuries to the secondary last year, Elam played more from the slot than Lardarius Webb—231 snaps to 135 snaps.
Not having Elam play his natural position, strong safety, has been the biggest issue in Elam’s lack of development. He has never been that coverage type of free safety ever since college. And here he is, playing free safety his rookie year and slot cornerback his second year. Maybe over thinking in coverage caused him to take some poor angles in open space which caused poor tackling.
Overall, there is no doubt; Elam has been a disappointment thus far. He was thrown into the NFL fire early and has been playing out of position ever since he came into the league. Keep in mind; he was a late first round draft pick which means he wasn’t bustling with talent to begin with. That first round status has certainly caused extra frustration among Ravens’ fans. Had he been a second round draft pick there would not be as much of an uproar. In essence, he is performing like a second round pick.
In the end, the 2015 season is going to be okay. The Ravens will endure this minor setback. As for Elam, let’s hope for a speedy recovery so that he can recapture the momentum he had this past offseason.