There’s only a few days left of critiquing draft prospects before they go off to another city, where they’ll play in another scheme and for a new team. Team fit is such an important aspect of drafting a player because it is frequently the deciding factor in how successful he is. If he’s playing in the wrong locker room, position, or scheme, then there’s a good chance the player will fail to develop. It’s why when there are conundrums like what position Florida safety Matt Elam will play in the pros, it’s important to ask all of the questions that come to mind.
Elam is an intriguing prospect who has many split on his potential, which is a good reason to ask what his true position in the pros will be. Is he a center-field safety who roams the middle of the field and covers sideline-to-sideline? What about at split-field safety that’s only responsible for half of the field? What about in the box like a traditional strong safety? No, seriously, what about in the box? I realize “box safeties” are considered old school, but they will be making a comeback when teams start to play even more nickel packages that feature three safeties.
The three-safety package (commonly referred to as the “big nickel”) is going to be a greater part of gameplans as defenses evolve to defend spread passing games. The reason for that is because defenses need to flood the underneath to stop the endless quick passes and simultaneously defend the run, which — contrary to the “it’s a passing league!” reports — is still as important as ever.
It’s also an effective way to combat offenses because it allows the underneath defenders to be physical with slot receivers and tight ends, all the while possessing athleticism that linebackers don’t always have. It’s worked for the New York Giants, among other teams, the last few years, most notably during the 2012 Super Bowl against the New England Patriots.
As I wrote at the time, the Giants were a little more daring with their scheme because they inverted their coverage, but the big nickel package allowed them to control the underneath by dominating the Patriots’ slot receivers and tight ends, which disrupted the rhythm of quarterback Tom Brady.
That brings us back to Elam, who was a versatile defender with the Gators and a fit as a slot defender in the big nickel package. He played all of the roles that were questioned earlier, but he was at his best when around the line of scrimmage. Despite his 5-foot-10, 208-pound frame, he is an excellent run defender because of his aggressiveness while attacking alleys, and he’s more than willing to be physical when tackling.
His run defense can be seen at the 2:14 mark in the video below, where he’s lined up in the slot near the top of the screen. When the play begins, Elam patiently shuffles his feet as he reads the run, which is coming to his side. He mirrors the receiver, who attempts and fails to cut block him, and then comes in and fills the alley, where he tackles the ball-carrier.
He’s fearless coming downhill, which is an important trait because it can set the tone of a game. It’s also something you can’t always say about defensive backs.
As for pass coverage, he shows quick feet and physicality, and that enables him to stick to slot receivers in man coverage. That can be seen at the 7:45 mark in the video below, where Elam is shaded inside a Louisville slot receiver in man coverage. At the snap, he comes forward and gets his hands on the receiver, who is slowed down and then fails to separate as the play develops.
He’s also a good defender in zone coverage, although there are times when he’s late expanding to his landmark. That lateness allowed quarterbacks to rifle in throws through the windows of the coverage. He needs to do a better job preventing that or he’ll be responsible for a significant portion of the passing yardage his NFL team gives up.
While Elam is talented enough to play in the slot, there are questions about his size, or lack thereof. It’s been pointed out by numerous people that his size puts him at a disadvantage against tight ends, who are becoming more like slot receivers in today’s NFL.
That’s an issue moving forward if he’s going to play in the slot. But what if he plays single-high or split-field safety? There’s not much difference, and one could make a valid argument that with defenses playing more Cover 2 Man (Man Under) coverage, he’s better fit to be a slot defender because he’ll have more freedom to attack the ball underneath while receiving help over the top from a deep safety.
The reality is that every player has weaknesses. You can pick out any prospect in this year’s draft class and slice him up, but it defeats the point of the evaluation. The point is to find players who can contribute to the team, which Giants general manager Jerry Reese once brilliantly described when he said, “when you think about it, there really aren’t that many great, great football players. Most are developmental projects. Picking out the top guys and the bottom guys isn’t all that difficult. It’s seeing those guys in the middle who can play a little.”
Elam’s not a top guy or the top safety. He might be a first-round pick, or he might not be. It’s tough to say this year because of the lack of top prospects.
But he can contribute to a team because he has the physical skill-set to do so. He can defend the run and he can cover, though he needs to develop his technique and fundamentals in the latter area. But like Reese said, most prospects need to develop. Elam’s best suited for the slot, which some will view as a limitation. In the end, though, it may be a strength considering the expected heightened use of the big nickel package in the coming years.
All videos are courtesy of draftbreakdown.com