The Saints have Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, Rafael Bush, Isa Abdul-Quddus, and now Jim Leonhard at safety. While Bush, Abdul-Quddus, and Leonhard project more as backups at this point, the man to fear for his job should be Roman Harper if the Saints decide to pull the trigger on Matt Elam. Elam has the NFL pedigree for a successful career (his brother, Abram Elam, has been a pretty solid playmaker on several NFL teams). But you would be a fool to doubt Matt’s potential to overshadow his brother.
To say Elam is a physical presence at safety is a discredit to his name. Looking at tape, he flies at the ball carrier with such force that you fear for his well-being. He was that guy that made fans say “Ooo!” every time he attacked another player. Also, he’s a strong safety who can actually cover fairly well. As Rob Rang of CBS Sports says,
“Athletic, instinctive and quite physical, Elam demonstrated the ability to walk up into the box and be a force near the line of scrimmage while also dropping back into coverage as a single-high safety when coaches called for it — showing off the type of versatility NFL teams are demanding from today’s hybrid safeties. Drops down to cover slot receivers, getting a strong initial jam on them and riding them throughout the first few yards aggressively.”
In the same analysis, though, Rang points out weaknesses that many Saints fans should recognize from current safety Harper:
“Too often loses out on 50-50 balls, being forced to attempt to rip away at the hands of the receiver as he attempts to come down with the catch. Highly aggressive downhill tackler who can come in too hot and lose control, leaving cut-back lanes.”
Rang relates Elam to Charles Godfrey of the Panthers or, with a little work, the infamous hard-hitter for the Steelers, Troy Polamalu. In my opinion, I believe he has the potential to be the next Harper because of his over-eager desire to attack the ball carrier. Now, that can be a positive and a negative complement. Harper tackles very well and can be the Saints hardest thumper on the defense when he isn’t trying to arm tackle the ball carrier or get beat in coverage. Elam will have growing pains as a rookie and may even look like Harper when he tries too hard to “blow up” the ball carrier. His height, 5’10″, can be somewhat of an issue as well when you consider covering NFL slot receivers, never mind tight ends. But, I think Elam has the chance to become better than Harper because of his play-making spark. Elam has great instincts and reacts well to the action on the field. His awareness, vision, and physical versatility allows him to play aggressive close to the line or away from the line in the open field. He also has leadership experience in the locker room, having been voted a team captain in 2012, which is something for the Saints to consider if indeed they are looking for a replacement for Harper.
Looking at tape, he is such an exciting player. He has something the Saints sorely lacked last year: big-play potential. Opponents have to account for him when deciding where to put the ball because he will be there, quickly, and with overwhelming force. The Saints may not be done with Harper and may have bigger needs than replacing a former Pro Bowler who has the ability to become a bigger factor in Rob Ryan’s defense. But there are only a few times you find a player with the potential that Elam has for a defense like the Saints. If they somehow are able to trade down or find a tackle prospect later in the draft or in free agency they think can push for starting time, it might be worth it to reach a bit for a player that can change the attitude of the secondary.
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