If anyone can fully realize the effects of the current NFL lockout, it would have to be Browns' safety Abe Elam. Elam, a Kent State product, emerged in 2010 as a solid contributor and playmaker in the Browns' revamped secondary. However, like the rest of his NFL brethren, Elam is playing the waiting game as football's fate is being decided far from the playing field.
For Elam, the timing of the lockout couldn't have been any worse. After finishing second on the team in tackles and registering two interceptions, two sacks and two forced fumbles last season, the five-year veteran currently finds himself as an unrestricted free agent in a league that currently doesn't feature such a system. Elam signed a one-year restricted free agent deal in 2010 and was set to enter free agency this year before the league halted all official activities.
Yet, despite this precarious status, Elam has kept a positive attitude. When asked if he was a victim of the league's courtroom stalemate, Elam offered the following.
"No, you just have to be patient," Elam said. "Things will eventually work themselves out. It's something that's out of my control."
Elam's current position is unique, in that he is both a current unrestricted free agent and former undrafted free agent. Elam, who broke into the league with Dallas in 2006, fully understands the plight of this year's crop of undrafted talent.
"Right now, there's probably 300 guys out there and all of them can play," Elam said. "With the lockout, it's tough because there are no mini-camps or OTA's and training camp might be cut short. Right now, there aren't many opportunities for players to go out and show what they can do. I think this lockout definitely affects them the most."
As for Elam's own free agent status, it's obvious that he wants to remain in Cleveland.
"I would love to be back in Cleveland," Elam said. "Cleveland is just a pure football town, period. The support you get here is unlike any other team in the league. Cleveland is probably one of the best organizations in the league – from the people here to the history and all the greats that have come before."
Elam, who has started all but one game during his time in Cleveland, also cites the momentum created by the Browns' defense during stretches of the 2010 season as a major factor in his wanting to return. Elam's experience in Eric Mangini and Rob Ryan's defense helped ease the transition of 2010 rookie starters Joe Haden and T.J. Ward.
"I took both of them under my wing and they were very receptive to everything I threw at them," Elam said. "I feel like they both fell into a role and they embraced it. I think with those guys, if they continue to work like they've been working, they're only to get better."
Elam also sees the potential of another young member of the team's defensive backfield, the beleaguered Eric Wright.
"Cornerback is one of the toughest positions on the football field," Elam said. "Eric Wright got a lot of heat because of his play, but I feel like he's still one of the better cornerbacks in the league. A lot was overblown compared to 2009. I know Eric and we've been in constant communication. He's working out hard and I know that this year he'll definitely go out and show people the type of player he is."
Of course, free agency being the unpredictable beast that it is, Elam realizes that his NFL future may take him away from Cleveland.
"If things work out different, I just want to be in a situation where I can flourish and continue to improve," Elam said.
However, Elam expressed his excitement in the Browns' shift to a 4-3 scheme and the arrival of new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron.
"I think the management believes that we have the talent to pull it off," Elam said. "Dick Jauron is here and he'll be a major reason it will work. There will be a lot of interesting changes and different parts, but I'm excited to learn that defense. I've never played in one."
Despite Elam's exclusive history playing in a 3-4 system, he sees parallels between Jauron's new defense and his own experience playing both safety positions. During his five-year career, Elam has shifted between free and strong safety, playing in both deep coverage and closer to the line as an extra linebacker in some schemes.
"Most of the defenses around the league have interchangeable safeties," Elam said. "With any defense, you have to be able to shift at any moment, so you have to be able to know both sides of the field. The key is trying to eliminate as much movement as you can. You have to learn how to play everywhere."
Elam credits much of his evolution as a player and versatility to Mangini, the Browns' head coach over the past two seasons. Elam was part of the 2009 draft day trade that eventually brought the likes of Alex Mack, Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi to Cleveland.
"He (Mangini) is one of the smartest coaches I've ever been around," Elam said. "He has a very high football IQ. You know with Mangini that you're going to learn football and I learned so much from that guy."
Elam is confident the lessons learned under Mangini will help him transition into the Browns' new defensive scheme. Elam is very familiar with Jauron, as he got to witness the former Bills' coach as a member of the Jets from 2007-2008.
"I know Dick Jauron," Elam said. "He has a great track record and has coached some really good defenses. His Buffalo teams were solid."
Of course, like every other player in the league, Elam now has to wait for the league to settle its labor differences. Elam's current offseason has been devoted to staying in game shape and continuing his ongoing charity work.
"I'm doing what I need to do now," Elam said. "A lot of the guys – we're getting together and training. Of course, we're not together as a team, but we're taking advantage of the time we have to work on the things we need to work on."
"I have a charity event that I'm getting ready to put on in my hometown of Riviera Beach, Florida on June 9-11," Elam said. "Joe Haden, Mike Adams and a few of my teammates are coming in for the weekend. We're doing an NFL vs. NBA Bowl-a-thon with Alonzo Gee of the Cavaliers. It will be fun and it's another opportunity to give back to my community."
The extended offseason has also allowed Elam to keep things in perspective. With free agency out of his control, Elam has focused on the more essential things in life.
"You have to keep an understanding of what's going on," Elam said. "At the same time, it's an opportunity to spend time with your kids and with your family. The only thing you can control is what you do with yourself. I know that football is not going to last forever. This lockout gives the chance to prepare for a future after football. It's a reminder that in life nothing is guaranteed and nothing is promised."
In many ways, this is a lesson that Elam knows all too well.