With future Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis inching closer to the end of his career, the subject of the Ravens finding his eventual replacement is nothing new.
One of the most recent names to be discussed this offseason was Arizona State linebacker Vontaze Burfict. However, character issues, a subpar junior season, and poor workout numbers have caused his draft stock to plummet from a potential first-round pick to a prospect some teams may remove from their boards entirely.
It’s a position similar to what current Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe faced three years ago. After being a second-team all-SEC selection as a junior at Georgia, a knee injury in his senior season and off-the-field questions dramatically changed Ellerbe’s draft fate.
“It went from starting out [projected to go in the] first round and getting hurt [as a senior],” Ellerbe said on AM 1570 WNST on Tuesday. “[I was] going into the draft having to work my way back up.”
Signed by the Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2009, Ellerbe made the 53-man roster and eventually grabbed the starting inside linebacker job next to Lewis by the end of his rookie year. Replacing an injured Tavares Gooden, Ellerbe started the final three games of the regular season and two playoff games. He finished his rookie campaign with 41 tackles and a critical interception in the regular-season finale that helped clinch a playoff spot.
His future appeared bright as it looked like the hard-hitting linebacker was realizing the potential scouts saw prior to his senior season in college.
But instead of building on his rookie success, Ellerbe showed up to his second training camp out of shape and lost his starting job to Jameel McClain. To make matters worse, an embarrassing showboating incident on an interception return for a touchdown in a preseason game in St. Louis carved out an even bigger spot in coach John Harbaugh’s doghouse.
Ellerbe has been trying to climb back up the ladder ever since as a backup. Injuries limited Ellerbe to nine games last season as he dealt with several ailments, including a sprained foot that left him on crutches following the AFC Championship game in New England.
His ability to play the run effectively has never been questioned, but, much like McClain, his pass coverage remains underwhelming.
Now entering his fourth season, the 26-year-old is looking to establish himself in Baltimore for the long haul.
“I still haven’t felt that yet,” Ellerbe said. “I still work year to year, and I’m still pushing myself every day. I don’t think I’ve ever felt that way. I just want to go out there and do my business and show that I belong in the league.”
Entering free agency with the threat of losing McClain, the Ravens placed the second-round tender on Ellerbe, who was a restricted free agent. He appeared to be in line as the favorite to start next to Lewis before a slow market for inside linebackers allowed the Ravens to re-sign McClain to a three-year deal last week.
The turn of events appears to have left Ellerbe in a familiar position as the primary backup and fighting to simply get on the field. With inside linebacker still a position the Ravens are likely to target in the draft, the end result of that final weekend in April could dramatically change Ellerbe’s fate in Baltimore.
Drafting an inside linebacker in the first few rounds would not only threaten Ellerbe’s standing on the depth chart, but it could push him off the roster entirely. With Ellerbe scheduled to make $1.92 million this season, the addition of a rookie inside linebacker could prompt general manager Ozzie Newsome to consider withdrawing the second-round tender to clear some cap room to address other needs — and make Ellerbe a free agent.
No matter how the offseason plays out, the 2012 season will be a big one for Ellerbe in trying to carve out a more prominent role for the future — in Baltimore or somewhere else. Planning to begin training with Lewis in a few weeks, Ellerbe would still like to realize that potential with the team that took a chance on him after watching his once-promising draft stock disintegrate.
“I love the fans and just love the atmosphere in Baltimore,” Ellerbe said. “So I’m definitely ready to get back and ink my deal. At the end of the day, it’s a business. I understand that, but I love the Ravens. I would love to end my career in Baltimore.”
To hear Dannell Ellerbe’s entire conversation with WNST.net’s Thyrl Nelson, click HERE.