Michael Huff can relate to the immediate expectations with which rookie safety Matt Elam is dealing. He was once a first-round draft pick who had to help replace a perennial Pro Bowl defensive back who had left town. So Huff has taken it upon himself to teach Elam everything he knows about being a full-time professional.
“Especially for a first-round pick safety following a legend, I’ve been there,” said Huff, the former Oakland Raiders defensive back who signed with the Ravens as a free agent this spring. “I had to follow Charles Woodson in Oakland, and he’s following Ed [Reed] here. So [I’m] kind of being there for him on the field, off the field. Whatever he needs, I’ll help him out.”
Elam might not be a starter just yet, but the rookie strong safety has impressed teammates and coaches with his instincts, aggressiveness and natural ability. Some fans wonder if they should be concerned that the team’s first-round pick hasn’t yet beaten out veteran James Ihedigbo at strong safety. But the Ravens don’t just hand over their starting spots to rookies, regardless of when they were drafted. Besides, what’s the rush?
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The Raiders threw Huff into the fire as a rookie and he started every game in his first two NFL seasons. But he struggled at times and lost his starting spot in his third season. He was able to bounce back and become a pretty good player in Oakland, and the Ravens are now counting on him to replace some of Reed’s playmaking ability and leadership in the secondary.
And with him manning Reed’s old free safety spot and Ihedigbo, who has played in the past two Super Bowls, there to be a steady if unspectacular presence at strong safety, the Ravens have the luxury to be patient with their prized pick from April’s draft.
That Elam hasn’t been coronated as a starter isn’t an indictment of his abilities. They are obvious to anyone who is watching.
“Obviously, you watch him fly around. He is fast. He closes on the ball carrier, on receivers. He’s a contact player,” Ravens secondary coach Teryl Austin said. “You see that right away he brings a Raven attitude to our defense and we love that. I think the biggest [challenge] for him as a young player is understanding all of the nuances of our defense in a short period of time.”
Austin said the coaching staff will “probably” decide who will be the Week 1 starter next to Huff after the team’s third preseason game Thursday night. But even if it isn’t Elam, we will still see him play a significant role off the bench.
As I’ve said before, he could be a Swiss Army knife of sorts for the Ravens defense, covering slot receivers, blitzing quarterbacks and tackling backs behind the line of scrimmage. Elam is on the smaller side for a strong safety, but he is a unique, instinctive athlete that has a nose for the football.
Huff, who was in a similar situation as a rookie, sees Elam’s physical abilities. But he says the biggest challenge for a young safety is getting a grasp on the mental side of the position.
“I tell him every day, ‘It’s just football.’ He’s been doing it since he was little,” Huff said. “Every game, I tell him, ‘Don’t treat it any different.’ He’s been playing football his whole life, so go out there, and treat it just like another game, trust his instincts, and trust what he sees and make plays.”