By: Ken LaVicka
With his college career behind him, Matt Elam has stepped into the wild world known as the "NFL Draft".
It's a place wrought with judgment, numbers, queries and rumors, but Elam, who made a national name for himself with tenacious safety play in three years at Florida, has high hopes.
The hard-hitter earned first-team All-American status this past season while helping the Gators to the Sugar Bowl, and is a prominent talent that several draftniks expect to grab the hat of an NFL team on the Radio City Music Hall stage during the first round.
"It's an honor being projected to go so early after the ones that went early in the past years, great first rounders," says Elam. "It's an honor just getting a chance, living the dream that everyone wants.
"It was my dream to move on to the NFL. It was one of my goals and I worked my tail off. I felt like I did what I had to accomplish."
Elam's high school coach, Jack Daniels, just completed his 17th season at Palm Beach County powerhouse Dwyer. Year after year the Dwyer program has pumped out numerous Division I college football prospects, but no one that Daniels has produced has had the ceiling of Elam.
"He is, I would say, the most accomplished right now," says Elam's former football mentor.
Is Daniels surprised Elam is on the verge of big NFL money?
"No, I'm not all."
Because of Elam's high profile career at UF, it's easy for many to pencil him in to the first 32 picks. That, however, is not a prognostication shared by all.
For example, respected NFL.com analyst and former Dallas Cowboys Vice President of Player Personnel Gil Brandt recently released his first 2013 mock draft. Missing from the first round? Elam.
Russell Lande, a scouting expert for the National Football Post and the Big Ten Network, is one of those not 100% sold on Elam as a sure thing on the opening evening in New York City.
"I've spoken to a number of scouts, some think he's a first rounder, some think he's more of a second or third round guy," says Lande. "From what I've heard from scouts, pretty much all I've spoken to, is they love his aggressiveness, he has great range, he can run. He's willing to hit. They'd like him to be a little more consistent as a tackler."
The difference between hitting and tackling. That could be the deciding factor when it comes to whether or not Elam makes first round money.
The best way to describe Elam's play at Florida? Violent. An angry bull in a 5'10", 202 lb. package, he became known for his crushing hits and explosive collisions. Elam says that one of the most memorable moments of his career came this past year in a win over LSU at "The Swamp" when he sent Tiger punt returner Odell Beckham, Jr. flying across the sideline. Elam finished the sequence with a hand gesture suggesting Beckham "go to sleep". He takes great pride in his ability to crack opponents with brute force.
"When it comes to [playing violent] I do my job and I make sure the runners or the receivers think twice about coming my direction. That's my job."
Elam's highlight reel smack-downs are aesthetically pleasing, but Lande stresses that NFL decision-makers are looking for more than a player who can send someone soaring head-over-heels.
"The thing you'll hear from coaches all the time is 'don't get me wrong, I'd love to the guy that can destroy guys and intimidate opponents', but they'll tell you that the safety is the last guy there. They better make that tackle.
"[Scouts] think [Elam] is best in coverage when he can lock onto a guy and say 'that's my guy'. When he's deep in coverage he has to read the play and break and close. Like most safeties, there are periods where he's great and periods where he's inconsistent. That, I think, is the area where teams want to see improvement from him. I think he's going to be in the mix to be one of the first few safeties taken."
The number of tantalizing safeties in this upcoming draft is where the intrigue really begins to kick in. Lande believes Texas' Kenny Vaccaro will be the first centerfielder taken, but admits that the gap between Vaccaro, Elam, Oklahoma's Tony Jefferson and LSU's Eric Reid is slim.
"Any one of those safeties could end up being the second safety taken and any one of them could be the fourth of fifth safety taken," says Lande. "They're almost so bunched together to predict one ahead of the other at this point is impossible."
Unless something shocking happens, a maximum of two safeties will be taken on the draft's debut night. If Vaccaro is indeed tops at the position, Elam and the rest of the field will be left biting their nails, hoping they can still sneak into the first round.
The lead-up to the draft, interviews with team personnel and, of course, the combine will loom large for Elam, who could get a massive boost from his brother.
Kansas City safety Abram Elam is a seven-year veteran of the NFL who has proved to be durable and consistent in stints with the Cowboys, Jets, Browns and now with the Chiefs. Matt leaned on Abe when tossing around the idea of leaving Florida early, and there's no overstating how advantageous Abe could be to Matt over the next few months.
"Having a sibling in the league is an enormous, enormous advantage", explains Lande. "I would bet that Abram is helping to make sure [Matt] gets the best trainer. He's probably on the phone with him every day saying 'don't screw up, make sure you eat this, make sure you follow what they're doing', as opposed to most other guys not having that."
With UF in the rearview mirror, Elam now embarks on road to the NFL Draft where not everything is a certainty. The next three months may be more important than anything Elam did in three years with the Gators. He'll be poked, prodded, graded, evaluated, and will repeat that process several times before the final week of April, all in the hopes that he can solidify a spot in the first round.
A lot will be written about Elam in the next several weeks, but his prep coach, Daniels, has an early assessment for all of the NFL scouts.
"That kid is a machine."
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