Ever since Bart Scott left for green pastures via free agency this offseason, the open spot next to Ray Lewis has been filled by a rotation of young linebackers.
In the Ravens' 30-7 win over the Denver Broncos last Sunday, Tavares Gooden, who is in his second year, and rookie free agent Dannell Ellerbe essentially split Baltimore's 58 defensive plays alongside No. 52.
Throw in Lewis' primary backup, Jameel McClain, and the Ravens have a trio of defenders that could eventually make up the future of the position.
"All three of them run very well, and they love the game of football," Lewis said on Wednesday. "They love playing the game of football. Anytime you find young kids who love playing the game of football, your job, my job and the coaches' job, is to put them in the right position to make the plays.
"I think individually each one of them can do things totally different, but at the same time, I think all three of them just love the game."
Gooden, a third-round pick in the 2008 draft out of Miami, was penciled in as the starting "Jack" linebacker when Scott followed former Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan to the New York Jets.
Known for his speed, Gooden, 25, showed his ability in Week 6 when he sprinted 58 yards to chase down Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson.
Ellerbe, 23, has proven to be a physical thumper in the middle. The 6-foot-1, 243-pound Georgia product was forced into emergency service against the New England Patriots in Week 4 when Brendon Ayanbadejo, who started for an injured Gooden, and notched six tackles.
And McClain, 24, is transitioning from the pass-rusher role he played last year (as a former defensive end at Syracuse) into more of a traditional linebacker, a move defensive coordinator Greg Mattison made this offseason.
Mattison is happy with the progress of all three.
"I think they're doing a great job," Mattison said. "I think they continually work [hard]. All I can go by is when they're in the game, how they play, and then what they do during the week to prepare. They work tremendously hard. They always know they're a step away from being in there full time, just like Ellerbe was against the Patriots."
At this point, Gooden and Ellerbe have seen the most time, in part because Lewis is so steady that McClain simply has to remain on the sideline for defensive snaps.
Gooden – who wore No. 52 at Miami, Lewis' alma mater – currently boasts 30 tackles, while Ellerbe has 12 stops after playing in only four games.
"That's two good, young linebackers," noted head coach John Harbaugh. "They are sharing time. I think Vic Fangio's done a great job with those guys. A second-year guy that's really a first-year guy, and a first-year guy who is an undrafted rookie free agent. They're playing next to Ray Lewis at a high level, both of them in different situations, and they're playing on special teams."
While Gooden and Ellerbe each boast four special teams tackles, that is where McClain has made his biggest impact. McClain is second on the team with 16 special teams stops.
"All you can do is take advantage of the chances you get in the game and grow with each play," said McClain, who logged 2.5 sacks, eight tackles and two safeties in 2008. "That's what I think we're all doing."
One positive to having three developing linebackers that are still capable is depth, considering their dual special teams and defensive duties.
"The depth helps us," said Gooden. "We can all play, and we all play hard. But because all of us can get in and contribute, we don't lose a step when one of us goes in the game. You can have a guy go full-speed [on special teams] when the coaches have confidence in you to play defense.
"It's like rotating running backs. A lot of positions do it. It helps us out as a team when the coaches have confidence."
Ever the leader, Lewis said that subbing one linebacker for another during the course of a game doesn't affect the way he plays. It is simply a matter of ensuring everyone is lined up correctly.
Additionally, Lewis thinks the constant change keeps him sharp.
"The thing you do is you really just focus on getting those guys lined up no matter who it is – whether it's Ellerbe, whether it's Gooden, Jameel," Lewis explained. "It keeps me really keened in because I've got to, 'OK – you've got this, you've got that, we've got this.' It's really just working together. I really think it's been a bonus. I know for them, but I think it's been a bonus for me, also."