2013 NFL Draft logo2013 NFL Draft

Matt Elam Might Be the Next Bob Sanders, but Is That a Good Thing?

November 17, 2012; Gainesville FL, USA; Florida Gators defensive back Matt Elam (22) gets ready against the Jacksonville State Gamecocks during the second half at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Florida Gators defeated the Jacksonville State Gamecocks 23-0. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
James DudkoFeatured ColumnistApril 17, 2013

A comparison to Bob Sanders certainly suits ex-Florida standout Matt Elam, who shares Sanders' all-action style. However, Sanders has made only five starts since 2007, so Elam might want to alter some of his playing habits.

Elam became famous at the collegiate level for his big hits. The sight of him thumping into ball carriers dominated highlight reels.

Take a look at this hit against Louisville. Elam doesn't really need to launch himself through the receiver, who only needs to be touched down.

Yet Elam still decks his man with a strong shoulder-first hit. It is precisely these kind of hits that put Elam at risk of going the same way as Sanders in the pros.

He's not a form tackler and instead dives into opponents. That's the kind of thing that looks great when it works, but makes a defense look foolish when it doesn't.

The main problem when a player launches himself instead of breaking down and setting for a form tackle, is the risk of injury to the defender.

Elam is a prime candidate to suffer injuries in this way. This wallop against Louisville is the prime example.

Elam has sent the running back's helmet flying. However, who has really come off worse, the safety, or the ball carrier?

The problem is Elam is constantly sticking his head into piles. He'll often throw himself into a collection of bodies at the end of a tackle.

This hit against Tennessee shows Elam's reckless attitude towards tackling and his own body. The play is essentially made by two other Gators defenders.

Yet Elam still runs in and jams himself into the runner. This time it's Elam's helmet that is sent through the air.

Elam needs to be smarter about when and how he makes his hits. He won't able to take too much contact like this and sustain a pro career.

He only needs to look at Sanders as the prime example of what happens when a safety doesn't pick and choose his battles.

Sanders played with the same wanton aggression as Elam. He never shied away from a hit, even when one wasn't really necessary.

Here is a fine example from Week 1 of the 2011 season. Sanders and the San Diego Chargers are taking on the Minnesota Vikings.

Sanders is deep to start the play and is positioned to be a force player against any backside runs.

Even though the Chargers defensive front has Adrian Peterson stopped at the line, Sanders still attacks downhill.

Despite the tackle being made, Sanders still dives head first into the pile.

The effort looks good and Sanders earned an assist for the stat sheet. However, it was a play he didn't need to make and contact he didn't have to endure.

Playing with this kind of reckless abandon earned Sanders a lot of plaudits with fans and coaches. Yet it did little to keep the dynamic safety healthy.

However, finding contact is the essence of a good safety's game. Tempering Elam's aggressive instincts would ruin his effectiveness as a player.

Certainly no NFL defense wants a safety who is afraid or incapable of enforcing big hits. That's why the appetite for destruction Elam shares with Sanders, will make him appealing on draft day.

Teams will love that when he channels his aggression under control, Elam, like Sanders was, is a real force. This superb run against LSU is a great example.

Elam reads run and breaks quickly from deep. He eludes a potential block and fires into the running back, sensibly wrapping around his legs.

It's the combination of aggression and smarts that defines the best pro safeties. Compare that play by Elam, with this hit by Sanders against the Vikings.

He again takes a deep alignment, but creeps forward, ready to offer run support.

Once the Vikings run the sweep, Sanders quickly breaks and attacks downhill.

Just as Elam would, Sanders dives in at the feet of the runner and completes a decisive stop.

Many NFL defenses still rely on their safeties for this kind of solid run support. That demands a certain element of aggression and devil-may-care attitude.

Those things naturally put players like Sanders at risk and will do the same with Elam. However, that's the nature of the position.

Safeties are often tone-setters. They emphasize the attacking nature of defense when they step up to stuff running backs or punish receivers across the middle.

Finding a balance between intimidation and making smart decisions is the key. In that way, safeties are the defensive equivalent of running backs.

They can hardly avoid contact on any given play. Naturally this increases the wear and tear they suffer and can shorten careers.

Sanders represents the cautionary tale at his position. His reckless abandon made his a dominating force, but it also contributed to keeping him on the treatment table.

Elam presents a difficult balancing act for NFL coaches. He must be taught to be a little more selective about when he delivers a hit.

However, Elam must balance refinement to his technique without losing the tenacious style that makes him a coveted safety.

 

All screenshots courtesy of Fox Sports and NFL.com Gamepass

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