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Practice was over and most of the players were either signing autographs or heading to the locker room for some cool air. But off to the side were a group of offensive players working with the machine that feeds them fast footballs one after another. Call them the good hands people.
But look closer and you’ll see one aqua defensive jersey among all those offensive players. One defensive player catching passes. The number is 59. The name is Ellerbe. The mission is clear.
“I want to be special,” he said. “A ball comes my way, I want to catch it. You’ve got to pay the price to make that happen. You’ve got to out-work everyone.”
This is a story of a player who could prove to be the most important free agent pick-up on this team – certainly on defense – a player who the Baltimore Ravens desperately wanted to keep, a player who has the physical tools and the proper mindset to dominate Sunday after Sunday.
As free agency kicked into gear this offseason, even as the Dolphins were working on a huge deal for Mike Wallace, they were already actively pursuing linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. See, Ellerbe was for the defense what Wallace was for the offense. An impact player. A difference-maker. An athlete in the prime of his career with big-play skills and a level of desire to match.
So far, as the preseason begins to wind down, Ellerbe has done nothing but meet those expectations. Try to get him off the field. In passing situations? At the goal line? In a lopsided game? You can’t. You won’t. Don’t even try.
“I’m here to play and I’m here to play well,” he said. “I can be as good as I want to be and I want to be the best.”
Powerful words from a powerful man.
Ellerbe already has his Super Bowl ring from last year’s Baltimore Ravens. But he is still hungry, still practicing every day with a chip on his shoulders and a goal in his mind.
“When you spend your life with people telling you that you’re too small and can’t play at a high level, it really pushes you,” he said. “I want to prove the doubters wrong. They doubted me in high school and in college. They doubted me when I wasn’t even drafted by the NFL. I’ll never forget that. It drives me every day of my life.”
His teammates have noticed. This is a player who doesn’t know half speed, who runs all out on every play and who reminds me of Zach Thomas for his instincts and tenacity. He will team with Philip Wheeler to give the linebackers a new look, a more big play intensive look.
“He’s always around the football,” said cornerback Brent Grimes. “He’s got speed. He’s got power. He’s got emotion. What else can you ask for from a linebacker? He brings it every play and we all feed off of him.”
Ellerbe looks around him and see plenty of talent. And he certainly knows talent after spending the past four seasons playing for the Ravens. Ed Reed? Ray Lewis? Some pretty good mentors, huh?
This defense has a chance to be a special, has a chance to dominate. So many of the pieces are in place. An imposing front seven. An improved group of cornerbacks. A talented safety in Reshad Jones covering the back end.
I asked Ellerbe if there are comparisons between this Dolphins defense and the defenses he played on with the Ravens. I really didn’t expect the answer I got. Not this soon, anyway.
“There really isn’t much of a difference,” he said. “I see a ton of talent here. We can be as good as we want to be. We’ve got power guys, we’ve got guys who can run. You really can’t ask for much more than that.”
So what should we expect from Dannell Ellerbe this season? You should expect triple digit tackles. You should expect a handful of sacks. You should expect some forced fumbles, some fumble recoveries and, yes, some interceptions. That extra work on the ball machine won’t go to waste.
“My motivation is another Super Bowl ring,” he said. “One isn’t enough. I’ve got 10 fingers and I can start doubling up too. But we still have work to do, plenty of work.”
It is a hot August morning and Ellerbe wipes the sweat from his eyes. “Enough of the preseason, I’m ready for the regular season,” he says. “I’m ready to help make a difference.”
And I’ve got a strong feeling that’s exactly what he’s going to do.
On Friday, A.C. in the A.M. looks at the goals for the Tampa Bay game
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