Cleveland Browns running back Kareem Hunt took the pitch from quarterback Baker Mayfield and appeared to have daylight around the left corner as tight end David Njoku cleared out cornerback Tavon Young. But from his spot in the Ravens’ secondary, DeShon Elliott sized up the play, quickly filled that gap and hammered Hunt, knocking him backward after a 2-yard gain.

The hit drew boisterous cheers from Elliott’s teammates, given that it occurred right in front of the Ravens’ bench, and underscored how Elliott’s physical style of play fits this Ravens defense.

Elliott came to training camp expecting to be a backup, considering the Ravens returned every starter in the secondary and he had missed 26 of 32 career games because of injuries.

But then in one of the more tumultuous episodes in Ravens training camp history, Pro Bowl safety Earl Thomas scuffled with fellow starting safety Chuck Clark, and within 48 hours Thomas was released for, as the team announced, “personal conduct that has adversely affected the Baltimore Ravens.”

Elliot, who had watched and learned how to be a pro from Eric Weddle and then played behind his fellow Texas alum Thomas, was suddenly the next man up.

“When your time comes, you have to take advantage of it,” Elliott said.

Frustrating Start

Elliott, though, needed plenty of patience.

A four-star recruit out of Rockwall-Heath High School in suburban Dallas, Elliott stayed home to play at Texas and earned first-team All-America honors with the Longhorns in 2017. He opted to leave college early, entering the draft after his junior year. He heard the critics who said he should stay in college another season and privately scoffed when draft analyst Mike Mayock, now the general manager of the Las Vegas Raiders, described him as the sixth- or seventh-best safety in the draft class.

Then the draft took place. Eight safeties were drafted in the first three rounds, and none of them were Elliott. Washington selected safety Troy Apke in the fourth round, and eight picks later, Tampa Bay selected safety Jordan Whitehead.

“The frustration was building every pick after the third round,” Elliott recalled. “I was kind of like, ‘What’s going on here?’ I did not expect that to happen to me, but hey, God puts you in certain places for a reason.

“I needed that,” he continued, “because I felt like maybe I was too high on myself.”

The Ravens finally drafted Elliott in the sixth round — the 17th safety and 190th player selected overall.

“When my name finally did get called, initially I was upset,” Elliott said, “but then I was happy because God blessed me to be in this great organization. When Ozzie Newsome called my phone, it changed my life for the better, and hopefully I can continue to … make him proud for picking me that day.”

The Ravens knew they were getting a physical, high-motor, hard-hitting ball-hawk who had six interceptions and three forced fumbles in his final season at Texas.

But Elliott’s rookie season ended before it began as he suffered a broken arm in a preseason game at Miami and was placed on injured reserve.

He rehabbed and returned last season expecting to contribute, especially after making a couple of highlight-reel plays in OTAs and training camp. Then when Tony Jefferson suffered a season-ending injury, it appeared Elliott’s time had come — but he suffered his own season-ending knee injury a week later.

Elliott admitted he had moments of sulking as his nascent NFL career looked to be stuck in neutral in the rehab room, but, “within a month or two I started working on my mental health and that kind of helped me elevate my mind, and realize things happen, and God puts you in a certain place for a reason.”

“The Joker” Takes Over

By the summer of 2020, Elliott was back on the practice field, grateful to be healthy again and to be feeling grass under his cleats after a pandemic-altered spring with OTAs and minicamp held digitally. It wasn’t hard to notice him.

The man teammates call “The Joker” — a moniker given by one of his college coaches after he noticed the giant ‘Joker’ tattoo on Elliott’s left forearm — was boisterous and brash, in his element and having fun now that he was finally healthy.

His voice carried across the fields, whether talking trash to a receiver after a 1-on-1 drill or barking at the offense before a full-team period. It’s the kind of swagger the Ravens like to see in their players, as long as it’s channeled properly.

“He likes to talk,” head coach John Harbaugh said, adding with a grin, “It’s a good thing most of the time, and sometimes you have to tell him, ‘OK, I’ve heard enough. But it’s always positive. The guy is energetic.”

Clark, who emerged as a starting safety last year and is one of Elliott’s closest friends on the team, says, “As a DB … you’ve got to have that confidence and that swagger on the field, and he has a lot of it. We love it as a defense.”

Still, Elliott was slotted for special teams play in the Ravens’ deep secondary before the issues with Thomas that had been simmering below the surface erupted.

Elliott suddenly became a centerpiece of a defense with designs on the Super Bowl, and while Elliott declares, “I don’t think I’ve played my best ball,” Harbaugh is pleased with what he has seen during the first quarter of the season.

“He’s playing well,” Harbaugh said. “He’s playing fast. He’s flying around. He has made very few mistakes as far as the scheme part of it, and he’s only going to get better. … Experience is a great teacher.”

Photo Credit: Kenya Allen/PressBox

Issue 265: October/November 2020

Originally published Oct. 14, 2020.

Bo Smolka

See all posts by Bo Smolka. Follow Bo Smolka on Twitter at @bsmolka