Less than an hour into his NFL career, first-round pick Matt Elam sent a message to his future adversaries.
“I’m going to do my job and make a receiver scared to go my way,” he said.
He still is a long way from lining up for a game, but the first step on that path happened late Thursday when the Baltimore Ravens drafted him No. 32 overall, the last pick of the first round. This will be a bold new adventure for a 21-year-old who spent his life in Florida, playing for Dwyer High School and the Gators before entering the draft in January.
He was an All-America safety at UF last season, finishing second on the team with 76 tackles. The defending Super Bowl champions sized him up as the best available player at any position when making the pick and will challenge him to grow into a role left vacant by the recent departures of safeties Ed Reed and Bernard Pollard.
The Ravens appeared to be choosing between Elam and Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o, and Elam’s ferocious hitting style was irresistible.
“I’ve never been so excited,” General Manager Ozzie Newsome said. “It was fun watching him play. It’s been a long time since I’ve watched a player on tape and play after play you just go, ‘Wow, oh wow.’
“The way he played on tape is the way you have to play in the AFC North.”
Coach John Harbaugh said Elam will be “right in the middle of the fight” to start at safety this season.
He will get at least two chances as a rookie to play in his home state. The Ravens open the pre-season at Tampa Bay on Aug. 8 and visit the Miami Dolphins on Oct. 6.
Elam, 5-foot-10, 208 pounds, has proven through games and workouts that he is viable as a safety and cornerback. He also causes problems up front when he moves up to the line of scrimmage and is a threat to blitz.
Versatility and reliability are two words that came up frequently during Elam’s three seasons at Florida, but he added a wildcard to the Gators’ defense with his ability to force turnovers.
He was fourth in the SEC with four interceptions last year and forced a critical fumble in Florida’s win over LSU.
“He is a violent tackler,” Gators coach Will Muschamp said. “He has really good explosion in a short area.”
Elam wore a gray Ravens polo shirt for his official introduction and press conference Friday. His former teammate, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, was welcomed as the No. 23 pick by Minnesota the same afternoon. It was the 10th time Florida produced multiple first-round picks in the same draft, and the school now has 45 first-rounders in program history.
Elam and Floyd arrived at UF in 2010 and persevered through two disappointing years — plus the resignation of Urban Meyer, the head coach who recruited them — to lead the Gators to the Sugar Bowl last season.
Elam left the Gators after amassing 166 tackles, 22.5 of which were for lost yardage, in 38 games. He broke up 12 passes, including six interceptions.
Despite his achievements, he enters the league motivated in part by those who doubt him. He believed himself to be the best safety in the draft, but watched Texas’ Kenny Vaccaro and LSU’s Eric Reid go ahead of him to the Saints and 49ers, respectively. Both of those players are 6-foot-1 or taller.
“They gave me a chip on my shoulder, seeing those two safeties go ahead of me,” Elam said. “But then again, I’m happy they went ahead of me, because I got an opportunity to play for the world champs.
“I just want to go out and prove it and make people realize why I feel like I was the best college safety coming out. My size doesn’t really matter. When you turn on the film, I’m a great competitor. I’m flying around. I’m hitting guys bigger than me.”