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NFL Draft

Can DeShon Elliott Replace Earl Thomas?

  • The Draft Network
  • August 25, 2020
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The Baltimore Ravens cut Earl Thomas earlier this week, and they’re taking no time eulogizing his time on one of the best defenses of 2019. Having already filed a grievance against Thomas, the Ravens’ official website plugged his potential replacement, as head coach Jim Harbaugh crowned third-year player DeShon Elliott the starting safety in Thomas’ place.

https://twitter.com/jeffzrebiec/status/1297630057570205697

Replacing a potential Hall of Famer with 40 pro snaps under your belt is no easy task, but the Ravens are high on Elliott, and he was an interesting player in the 2018 NFL Draft cycle. 

What do we know about the player, and what does he bring to fill Thomas’ void in the Ravens’ defensive backfield?

Pre-Draft

Elliott was a solid player on a good Texas secondary, starting among four future NFLers: Kris Boyd, Holton Hill, P.J. Locke, and 2020 draftee Brandon Jones. 2017, his first and only year of starting, saw his stock soar throughout a playmaking season: six interceptions (with two pick-sixes), nine PBUs, and three forced fumbles. Elliott ended up a finalist for the Paycom Thorpe award for best defensive back in the nation, along with Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson and Alabama cornerback and winner Minkah Fitzpatrick.

Elliott wasn’t making plays at Texas because he was a premier athlete, he was making plays because he was tough, versatile, and wicked smart. At 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, Elliott’s has the build of a big-bodied box safety capable of playing on the line of scrimmage, which Texas occasionally asked him to do—but he was at his best robbing from the box, getting involved in run fits, and jumping underneath routes.

https://twitter.com/BenjaminSolak/status/963091156467961856?s=20

At that combine, Elliott’s size was great, but he didn’t test on agilities and was only average in terms of linear explosiveness (4.58s 40-yard dash, 36-inch vertical, 10-foot-1-inch broad). Again, when adjusting for density and projecting him to box play, this wasn’t too big of an issue, but it was tough to project Elliott for significant man coverage reps given his limitations playing through angles and changing direction, and it seemed his ability as a deep center fielder would be limited accordingly.

With all of this considered, Elliott was expected to be a Day 2 pick, maybe lasting into the first few picks of Day 3—few expected him to be around in Round 6. Elliott lasted far beyond such players as Penn State’s Troy Apke and Marcus Allen, Wisconsin’s Natrell Jamerson, and Florida’s Marcell Harris, none of whom had the on-field production of Elliott. As is often the case with good players who are falling, the Ravens stopped the skid, with Elliott as one of the last picks of Ozzie Newsome’s storied career as the general manager in Baltimore.

Elliott’s value helped vault the Ravens’ draft class into the top 10 on Kyle Crabbs’ post-2018 draft grades. Elliott was considered a depth option behind Eric Weddle, Chuck Clark, and Tony Jefferson for 2018 before an August fractured forearm blanked his 2018 season, and again a depth option in 2019 behind Jefferson, Clark, and Thomas before a knee injury ended his 2019 season after just six games.

NFL

Unfortunately, there’s not much data on Elliott with the Ravens as a result of his injury, so we’re largely looking at him as he was from the draft process. Elliott’s only game with significant snaps came against the Bengals in Week 6, when he started in place of the injured Jefferson—that was the game in which he would eventually sustain his own knee injury, ending his 2019 campaign.

He did make a play from his deep-middle alignment against the Bengals, breaking up a pass on the sideline by arriving with velocity to the catch point as Marlon Humphrey and Tyler Boyd battled for a ball on the sideline. Elliott obviously doesn’t arrive in time with the pass, but not even Thomas has the combination of speed and instincts to get there with that ball. In all, it’s not bad range and timing from centerfield.

Can He Replace Thomas?

I mean, no. 

Thomas is wildly talented, impossibly intuitive, and a playmaker at his core. Elliott certainly had playmaking tendencies with the Longhorns, and he showed good mental acuity for the game, but no players demonstrate the instincts that Thomas does, and Thomas has the recovery athleticism that Elliott lacks.

It is worth noting that Thomas did not serve as the permanent center fielding safety the way he famously did in Seattle. Baltimore constantly rotated their safeties, interchanging Thomas and Clark and Jefferson (when available) to send blitzers from depth and conceal their intentions regarding their coverage shells. Their defensive structure forced quarterbacks to process post-snap, prolonging their time in the pocket and helping pass-rushers arrive.

As such, Thomas regularly played underneath, robbed the middle of the field hole, and even bailed into deep coverage from line of scrimmage alignments. As For The Win’s Steven Ruiz put it in his breakdown of Thomas’ skill in multiple roles, “There isn’t another safety quite like Thomas, so his departure will leave a gaping hole in the Baltimore secondary—and one that won’t be filled with DeShon Elliott or a cornerback convert like some have suggested.”

I wholeheartedly agree. I think Elliott was a good player coming out, and I think he has the requisite mental acuity and versatility to play for the Ravens and keep his head above water. However, to expect him to fill the wide range of responsibilities that Thomas filled as well as Thomas did is far too steep of an expectation for a third-year player who has missed significant game reps and was already lacking for athletic ability before his knee injury. The Ravens will get Elliott into the rotation, but would be wise to investigate trade options and the free agent market in an effort to acquire a higher-caliber safety to keep Elliott as a rotational bench piece or insurance for injury.

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