A year ago, the Baltimore Ravens faced a difficult decision regarding Dannell Ellerbe, a restricted free agent.
Offer him a contract or let him go.
At the time, the former Richmond Senior standout hadn’t made much of an impact for the Ravens. After three seasons, Ellerbe career statistics were 90 tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery, one interception and two passes defended — decent numbers for a special teams player and part-time starter.
Known for a rugged defense led by future Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed, Baltimore’s roster featured several linebackers currently under contract and re-signing Ellerbe to a long-term deal didn’t seem to be a top priority for the organization.
So the Ravens slapped a second-round tender on Ellerbe, meaning if any other team wanted to sign the former University of Georgia star, it would have to forfeit a second-round draft pick to Baltimore. A steep price to pay for a player who was ticketed to become a journeyman.
When everything was said and done, Ellerbe and Baltimore agreed to a one-year, $1.93 million deal for this season. This suited Ellerbe just fine because it allowed him to remain with the team which gave him an opportunity as a undrafted free agent out of college.
“Honestly, it’s not about the money,” Ellerbe said in April, weeks before the contract was announced. “If another team wants me and the money figures are about the same, I would prefer to come back with the Ravens.”
Now Baltimore is happy it elected to keep Ellerbe around.
The fourth-year pro stepped into the limelight when starters Jameel McClain and Lewis went down with injuries. Lewis suffered a torn bicep muscle against the Dallas Cowboys in October, while McClain went on injured reserve with a spinal contusion near the end of the season.
This allowed Ellerbe to blossom into the player many expected him to be after his junior season in Athens, when he led the Bulldogs with 93 total tackles and was credited with 4 1/2 sacks along with 15 quarterback hurries.
The future seemed bright for the Hamlet native and there was talk he could be the first linebacker selected in the NFL Draft.
The following year, Georgia was the preseason favorite to win the national championship as Ellerbe, Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno graced the cover of the Sports Illustrated college football preview issue.
An early-season loss to Alabama derailed Georgia’s chances at the title and Ellerbe suffered a knee injury in the game. Even though he continued to play through the injury, Ellerbe’s stats dropped as did his draft stock. So much so that the Ravens were able to pick him up from the scrap heap of undrafted college players.
Fast forward four years and Ellerbe is on the cusp of winning his first Super Bowl and sending his teammate and mentor Lewis out as a champion. Unlike his first three seasons when he was a supporting player, Ellerbe has a starring role in the Ravens’ run to New Orleans. He has 23 total tackles in the playoffs and had one of the Baltimore’s two interceptions against Tom Brady in Sunday’s AFC Championship.
Not too bad for a guy who was expected to fight for playing time this season.
— Sports editor Shawn Stinson can be reached at 910-997-3111, ext. 14, or by email at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @scgolfer.