OWINGS MILLS – Dannell Ellerbe diagnosed the play immediately, bolting out of his stance and sprinting past blockers to tag Troy Smith for a sack Tuesday.
During another sequence, the Baltimore Ravens’ inside linebacker broke crisply on the football to record an easy pass deflection.
It was an active morning at passing camp for Ellerbe, who is working to cement a starting job alongside All-Pro linebacker Ray Lewis.
Ellerbe ended his rookie season with some impressive work in five consecutive starts, including two playoff games. Now, it’s a matter of holding onto the job.
It’s only May, so Ellerbe doesn’t have the spot locked up yet. He’ll face competition during training camp from Tavares Gooden, Jameel McClain and possibly Brendon Ayanbadejo when he returns from a torn quadriceps.
For now, though, it’s Ellerbe who’s making a strong bid to remain the guy next to Lewis.
"Yes sir, I have strong confidence that I’ll be the starter," Ellerbe said. "I want to set it in stone that I’m the starter. I just want to show them everything, every part of my game. I want to show them that I have improved at all of the little things.
"Every time I’m on the field, I feel like I can do it all. Whatever they need, I can do."
Despite a sprained knee that limited him throughout training camp last year, Ellerbe was the lone undrafted rookie to make the team. By the end of the season, the former University of Georgia standout didn’t look out of place at all on one of the top defenses in the NFL.
He intercepted a pass and recovered a fumble in the regular-season finale against Oakland as the Ravens clinched a playoff berth. And he registered a team-high 10 tackles in the Ravens’ AFC divisional playoff loss at Indianapolis. He totaled 16 tackles in two playoff starts.
To continue to separate himself from the pack of linebackers, Ellerbe can’t afford to relax.
Ravens coach John Harbaugh emphasized that nothing is guaranteed for Ellerbe other than a chance to compete, but he likes what he’s seen out of him this offseason.
"I think Dannell is doing very well, as are all the other young linebackers," Harbaugh said. "I wouldn’t characterize any of those young guys as starters yet. I think the competition is there.
"Dannell has done very well. I think he’s had a really good offseason of conditioning and learning the defense. I would put the other guys in that same category."
Ellerbe, 24, played at roughly 243 pounds last season. Admittedly, he wasn’t in the type of shape he wanted to be in after suffering the knee injury during training camp. He said he now weighs about 250 pounds, down from 260 earlier this offseason.
Despite the extra pounds, Ellerbe looks quick.
"I picked up a little weight, so I’ve been on a diet lately," Ellerbe said. "I got up to like 260 pounds, which is the most I’ve ever weighed in my life. Whatever I weigh, I just want to be in shape."
That sprained medial collateral ligament that dogged him early last season no longer aches.
"It’s like it never happened," said Ellerbe, who finished 2009 with 41 tackles. "Toward the end of the season, it started feeling normal again."
He doesn’t lack for ambition. Asked what his personal goal is for the season, Ellerbe didn’t hesitate: "Pro Bowl."
Now, Ellerbe is primed to possibly go from someone teams avoided in the draft last spring because of health and character concerns stemming from a driving under the influence incident to a sound, established player.
"I appreciate it a lot," Ellerbe said. "This is what I expected. I just try to build on this and get better every day. I’m competing against the offense and competing against the guys who are trying to get the position."