NEW ORLEANS — As Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis addressed an overflow crowd from a riser at Tuesdays Media Day, Dannell Ellerbe walked among the reporters and camera crews on the floor of the Superdome.
Many expect Ellerbe to assume Lewis throne next year after Lewis retires, although first the Ravens need to re-sign him.
Ellerbe, who grew up in Hamlet and played at Richmond County, had a breakout year this season at an opportune time. While he has been tagged as Lewis heir apparent by some observers, Ellerbe is eligible for free agency for the first time and is interested to see what the market will bear.
You always want to know what youre worth, Ellerbe said Tuesday. You really cant afford to leave money on the table in this league because you never know when its going to be over.
Ellerbe made $1.93 million this season after Baltimore gave him a second-round tender as a restricted free agent. He responded with career highs in tackles (92) and sacks (4.5), and was a big reason the Ravens defense didnt fold when Lewis missed 10 games with a torn triceps. Ellerbe and inside linebacker Jameel McClain, who signed a three-year deal last offseason, are considered the Ravens top options to replace Lewis.
Ellerbe was a bit player for the Ravens the past two seasons while dealing with hamstring injuries. But Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said Ellerbes development this season showed maturity.
Sometimes as a young guy you kind of let everything go on your athletic ability. But to be a true pro is studying film, studying all those things that make you a special player, like a Ray Lewis, Pees said. I think Ell has now bought into that and I think thats taken him to a little different level as a player.
Ellerbe missed out on a big payday when an injury-plagued senior season at Georgia sent his draft stock plummeting. Ellerbe was a preseason All-SEC choice in 2008 after leading the Bulldogs with 93 tackles the previous season.
But he missed nearly a month with a sprained knee, and finished with 33 tackles his final season in Athens. A draft party at his girlfriends church in Union County turned awkward when the day ended without Ellerbe getting selected.
To see players (picked) that everybody knew werent better than me, and kickers and punters get drafted, it was kind of hurtful to me. But its something I had to go through, Ellerbe said. My family didnt understand it. I didnt understand it. My agent didnt have any words for me, so I fired him.
Ellerbe, 27, also had off-the-field issues at Georgia, including a DUI arrest in 2006 when he took a teammates car without permission and crashed it into a tree, according to reports.
But he said he never doubted he would make it to the top of the NFL.
I had some off-the-field issues. All of it wasnt really true what I went through, but I had to go through it and it humbled me, he said. Now Im just thankful I went through all that.
Ellerbe said most of his family still lives in Hamlet and nearby Cheraw, S.C. He was saddened to learn of the recent death of Ed Emory, the former East Carolina coach who was Ellerbes coach at Richmond County.
He was a great guy. He never got my name right. He always called me Danielle, said Ellerbe. My junior year, they moved me to linebacker. I dont think he knew who I was until a game in the middle of the season. I had a big game and I got noticed then.
Ellerbe is getting noticed again.
Despite missing three practices last week with a bulging disc, Ellerbe said he is good to go after receiving an epidural. He plans to practice Wednesday, and play with Lewis a final time Sunday.
Theres no passing of the torch. We just need to find guys when Ray leaves that are going to replace him, Pees said. And certainly I think Ellerbe is a guy thats done a great job for us and I would want him to be there.