Inside linebacker spot next to R. Lewis up for grabs

Ellerbe, Gooden among pool of candidates competing for one of few open positions

Expectations will be sky-high when the Ravens open training camp in Westminster on July 26. The roster has been replenished, the coaching staff tweaked and only a few jobs remain up for grabs.

But one of those jobs – who lines up beside iconic Ray Lewis at inside linebacker in the 3-4 defensive alignment – promises to deliver one of the summer's more intriguing story lines.

Dannell Ellerbe and Tavares Gooden, two linebackers with differing strengths and bodies, can agree on one thing: no one has a lock on the job.

"It's the same thing as last year," Gooden said. "It's always open. Every year, every position on this team is open."

Added Ellerbe: "There's always going to be competition. It's never just given to you — unless you're Ray Lewis. Last year was my first year, and so I know there will be competition."

Gooden, the 71st overall pick and the club's third-round choice in the 2008 draft, played in 13 games last season, starting 12. But he eventually gave way to Ellerbe, an undrafted rookie who started the final three regular-season games and the team's two postseason contests.

Ellerbe has continued to work with the first defense through the Ravens' series of minicamps this spring, but coach John Harbaugh cautioned against reading too much into that.

"I wouldn't characterize any of those young guys as starters yet," Harbaugh said in late May. "I think the competition is there. Jameel McClain's in the mix, Tavares Gooden's in the mix. Hey, Brendon Ayanbadejo, when he gets back [from a torn left quadriceps tendon], you never know. So, all those guys are trying to line up next to Ray [Lewis], and they're getting tons of reps right now."

Like Ellerbe, McClain is an undrafted rookie who made the 53-man roster in 2008 and was listed as the backup to Lewis on the depth chart for most of last season. Ayanbadejo is perhaps the fastest linebacker on the club and was a fixture during passing situations.

But it's clear heading into camp that Ellerbe and Gooden are the primary candidates for the starting role, and both players provide different options.

The 6-foot-1, 235-pound Gooden was supposed to be the heir apparent to Lewis, a tantalizing mix of speed and strength. He finished ninth on the defense in tackles with 52 and also broke up two passes.

But a hernia cut short his rookie campaign after four games, and Gooden sat out a combined four contests last season after dealing with a concussion and a groin injury.

Gooden, who said he has spent part of his offseason improving his flexibility to better absorb hits, said he has adjusted his approach to the competition.

"I know my role is to be a demon on [special] teams and help out on defense whenever I can," he said. "It's good to know that the spot is open. We've got a lot of great guys here, and it's a long season. We're just all having fun. It's not something that's stressing anybody out."

Gooden's troubles opened the door for the 6-1, 228-pound Ellerbe, who finished seventh with 55 tackles and enjoyed a career day in the regular-season finale against the Oakland Raiders when he intercepted a pass that led to a touchdown and cemented a 21-13 victory by pouncing on a fumble caused by outside linebacker Antwan Barnes.

Despite his surprising rookie campaign, Ellerbe said he wasn't totally stunned by Harbaugh's comments regarding the undecided status at inside linebacker.

"A little bit, but not really," he said. "Until you go a full season and sign a contract that says you're going to be here for more than a couple years and they want you to be the linebacker, there's always going to be competition. I'm still thinking I'm a free agent."

Ellerbe's reputation as a run stopper and Gooden's quickness at dropping into coverage are just two reasons why linebackers coach Dean Pees is comfortable using different players depending on the scenario.

Pees, who previously served as the New England Patriots defensive coordinator, cited that team's rotation of Ted Johnson and Roman Phifer in the 2004 postseason. In the AFC championship game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Johnson played 60 snaps, while Phifer played just six. In the Super Bowl against the Philadelphia Eagles, it was Phifer who played 60 snaps, while Johnson played just six, according to Pees.

"We may use them situationally," Pees said about a linebacker rotation. "If somebody doesn't just clearly win the battle and say 'OK, I'm clearly better than the rest of them,' that's OK. Then [we'll] try to utilize your talents. [If] one guy's a little better coverage guy, maybe he'll be a third-down linebacker. Maybe another guy's a good run stopper, he might be a first-down linebacker."

Both Ellerbe and Gooden took great pains to say that players like Ayanbadejo, McClain and 2009 fifth-round pick Jason Phillips could contribute and play an extended number of snaps. That's why neither player is overly concerned about who is starting.

"It doesn't matter who starts, it matters who finishes," Gooden said. "All of us are playing. It's a crazy rotation. We have good linebackers who could start anywhere in the NFL. It's good to have that depth. … It's just a friendly competition. There's no worries."

Sun writer Ken Murray contributed to this article.

edward.lee@baltsun.com

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