With the 2012 NFL season in the books, and the scouting combine in the rear-view, it's time to take a closer look at the 50 players we think will be the biggest difference-makers at the next level from this draft class. To that end, we're happy to continue this year's Shutdown 50 scouting reports (Hint: There may actually be more than 50). You can read last year's group here. The final 50 players were chosen and ranked based on game tape, combine and Pro Day results, overall positional value, and attributes and liabilities on and off the field.
#31: Matt Elam, SS, Florida
We continue this year's series with Florida safety Matt Elam, the 5-foot-10, 208-pound human missile who has made a host of great plays for the Gators in the last three seasons. He was a special teams standout as a true freshman, playing in all 13 games, and moved into the defensive backfield in a more prominent role in time for the 2011 season. He started all 13 games, leading the team in tackles for loss (11.0), deflected passes (7), and forced fumbles with two. He showed better range as a pass defender in 2012, moving up from two picks in 2011 to four the next season, while maintaining his stats in other areas. Perhaps most impressively, he played among his best games against the best the SEC had to offer.
"I play very hard," Elam said at the scouting combine, when asked what he brings to the NFL. "I love to strike people. I feel that's what helped me stand out the most, and I’m very versatile. I can cover the slot receivers, I can go down and cover, I can go in the box and tackle. I can play in the post. I feel like that what make me stand out the most.”
Asking where Matt Elam fits best in a professional secondary may be the typical question, but it won't provide the right answer. In truth, his versatility will be the key to his ultimate NFL success, especially in a league where nickel and dime sets are more common than ever.
Pros: Short player, but Elam has an outstanding combination of musculature and quickness and he put up a 35.5-inch vertical leap at the scouting combine. Has the range and game speed to play wide in quarters and thirds coverage, though projects best as a slot defender and quick box player. Shows tremendous closing speed when coming down from coverage to tackle and provide run support. Has good recovery quickness on close cuts and doesn't get embarrassed too often on slants, in-cuts, and comebacks. Has the deep speed to provide boundary support on long sideline passes -- boxes his receiver into position well. Covers well up and down the seam -- this may be his best role in the NFL.
Excellent slot defender who turns and runs with faster receivers, transitions from his first to second responsibilities in mixed coverage, and sticks with his man on routes with cuts and angles. Tackles powerfully and with authority when he wraps up and uses proper technique -- surprising strength prevents further yards after contact. Can play the back half well, but he isn't a single-high center fielder. Reads keys in the backfield and follows the action -- probably a better man than zone player. Has the quickness, aggressiveness, and strength to blitz from the line or from linebacker depth. Impressive ball-hawking abilities for his height. Special teams demon who will make an NFL impact there right away.
Cons: Lack of height shows up when facing high-pointing receivers, and he could struggle against flex tight ends in close quarters. Will need to be taught how hits in the NFL work -- it's nice that he comes down to give shots with authority, but he's going to rack up a pretty impressive NFL fine schedule the way the game is played today. Tends to go for the kill shot too often and loses the ability to tackle consistently as a result. Will occasionally get caught peeking in the backfield and can be subsequently late on crossing routes.
Conclusion: If there's one thing I've learned in the last few years of talking to coaches and personnel executives, it's that the most adept and consistently successful teams rate their prospective players based on what they can do more than what they can't. Which doesn't mean that they'll put every player high on their boards on a no-matter-what basis, but it does mean that they will find things in players that other teams don't see, based on scheme fit and opportunity, and use those characteristics to assemble a roster from top to bottom that has optimal value. Those people work less from prototypes and more from specific football skills that are transferrable to their organizations.
And to those organizations, I think that Matt Elam could be far more highly prized than those who take a look at his tape and decide that he doesn't fit the suit. Elam is a player who can do a lot of things very well at a lot of different positions, but isn't dominant at any one. So, for teams looking to maximize their defensive rosters with players who fill multiple roles, Elam could very well be a first-round pick -- even with the "too short to be a safety" ding other teams will no doubt give him.
In today's NFL, Elam will need a creative coaching staff who sees what he can do as opposed to what he can't, and multiple defense in which to thrive. Taken with the 44th pick in the 2004 draft out of Iowa, Bob Sanders was also too short to be a safety -- or so some teams believed - but he hit the right team at the right time, and was an indispensable player for a perennial playoff contender, and the 2007 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Does Matt Elam have that same potential? Start him in the right system and see where it goes.