When the Ravens signed inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe four years ago as an undrafted free agent, it was for a modest sum.
It cost them just a $2,000 signing bonus to get the former University of Georgia standout under contract.
“I've come a long way,” Ellerbe said. “It's not about where you start, it's about where you finish.”
Now, Ellerbe's situation and price tag have changed dramatically.
As one of the top free agents at his position, Ellerbe is expected to get a contract in at least the $25 million to $30 million range or even higher based on recent contracts for inside linebackers.
Ellerbe's agent, Hadley Engelhard, told The Baltimore Sun he doesn't anticipate getting a deal done with the Ravens by midnight, adding: "Starting Saturday, we'll be talking with all 32 teams."
As the start of free agency Tuesday afternoon comes closer, the North Carolina native hopes he’ll stay with the Super Bowl champions.
The Ravens are expected to make Ellerbe a significant offer prior to the start of free agency.
“There's always a chance, and that's what I'm hoping will happen,” Ellerbe said. “The Ravens are a perfect situation for me. Hopefully, it's a perfect situation for me to sign on the dotted line.”
Now that they’ve signed quarterback Joe Flacco, Ellerbe is the Ravens' No. 1 priority as far as their own free agents. They currently have $11.463 million in salary-cap space prior to assigning any restricted free-agent tenders.
With inside linebacker Ray Lewis retired and Jameel McClain still recovering from a spinal cord contusion, keeping Ellerbe is important for the Ravens.
Under NFL rules, other teams could start talking to Ellerbe's agent after midnight last night and agreements in principle can be struck. However, no contract can be officially signed until the free-agent signing period begins Tuesday.
So, the last few days before free agency also operate as an exclusive signing window for teams to retain their own free agents.
That's what the Ravens and Ellerbe hope happens.
Regardless of whether he returns to Baltimore or goes elsewhere, a big payday awaits Ellerbe. So, he feels like he can't lose.
“It's a win-win because I worked so hard to get here,” said Ellerbe, who made $1.93 million last season on a restricted tender. “Now, I'm here. I got some catching up to do coming into the league undrafted, not that money is the main priority.
“I'm excited to be here. I'm just ready to go through this and go to the next thing. I'm taking it in stride. I don't want to get too caught up in it. I want that stability. Part of it's respect.”
Every day on his Twitter account, Ellerbe hears from Ravens fans urging him to stay with the team.
“Some fans understand what's going on, some fans don't,” he said. “It's a business.”
Besides Ellerbe, the Ravens' other free agents include: outside linebacker Paul Kruger, cornerback Cary Williams and free safety Ed Reed.
Kruger, a highly regarded pass rusher, is expected to command an expensive bidding war between teams like the Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts, while the Ravens informed Williams that he's not a priority.
General manager Ozzie Newsome has expressed confidence that he can work something out with Reed.
“Now, the challenge for us is to keep as many good players as we can,” Ravens assistant general manager Eric DeCosta said during the NFL scouting combine. “That's really the challenge of this business, with the salary-cap constraints, is to keep your good players, and we're going to try to do that.”
Despite battling ankle, foot, back and thumb injuries, Ellerbe recorded a career-high 89 tackles, 4 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble last season.
Ellerbe had 32 tackles in the playoffs, including a team-high nine in the Ravens' victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl, and he intercepted New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady in the AFC title game.
“I hope next year goes a bit smoother with injuries. I had some bad luck,” Ellerbe said. “It was tough, but if I played that well hurt, imagine how well I could play healthy.”
Ellerbe said he's feeling better now and didn't have to undergo any offseason surgeries. He has resumed speed work and weightlifting.
“Yeah, I'm feeling good,” said Ellerbe, adding that he currently weighs 240 pounds and is in good shape. “I'm all right. I'm just healing up for next season. I needed time off.”
Over the years, the Ravens have not always retained the inside linebackers who started opposite Lewis when they got to free agency. That included Bart Scott and Ed Hartwell, but the Ravens re-signed McClain last year on a three-year, $10.5 million contract.
This marks the first time, though, that Lewis is no longer a part of the Ravens defense.
“That's big,” Ellerbe said. “It's a huge opportunity with Ray retiring. Getting paid isn't everything I want out of playing football. I want to get the accolades. I want the Pro Bowls. I got enough years left in me. So, this is just the beginning.”
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