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The Competition: Inside Linebackers


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*Heading into the first practice of training camp, will offer previews of those positions that feature a tough competition, focusing on who will be fighting for playing time. Today, the inside linebackers take the spotlight.
One position can be etched into stone. That is Ray Lewis' spot at middle linebacker.

However, there's much uncertainty as to who will be Lewis' right-hand man, as a logjam of young talent has several players vying for playing time.

Those players are returning starter Dannell Ellerbe, Tavares Gooden, Jameel McClain, Brendon Ayanbadejo and Jason Phillips. They each have different strengths, which in combination made the grouping quite effective last year.

But who will emerge from the pack this year?

Here's a look at the competition as we head into the summer months:

Ray Lewis, 15th season
What He's Done:  Everything. Lewis led the Ravens in tackles every year that he was healthy and has reached 11 Pro Bowls.
What He's Going For:  Another Super Bowl ring. In other words, Lewis isn't battling for any reps or a position.
What He Needs To Do:  The Ravens' emotional leader just needs to stay healthy, which hasn't been a problem lately. Lewis hasn't missed a game during the John Harbaugh era.

Dannell Ellerbe, 2nd season
What He's Done:  Ellerbe claimed a leading gig last year, going from an undrafted rookie to the Ravens' starter for their final five games including the playoffs.
What He's Going For:  Ellerbe badly wants his starting spot back and he's not stopping there. He wanted to be the Rookie of the Year last season. Now that he has more eyes on him, Ellerbe is aiming for the Pro Bowl.
What He Needs To Do:  Ellerbe's bread and butter is shedding blockers and eating up running backs. In order to become a more complete linebacker and see more snaps, he's looking to improve his pass rush and coverage.

Tavares Gooden, 3rd seasonWhat He's Done:  Gooden entered last year's training camp as the frontrunner, but injuries hampered him and he had been supplanted as the primary option by the time he returned. Gooden made 47 tackles in 12 games.
What He's Going For:  Gooden said he isn't too concerned with who's starting, he wants more chances to showcase his unique athletic abilities.
What He Needs To Do:  Stay healthy. He suffered injuries as a senior in college, then as a rookie and head and groin injuries forced Gooden out for four games last year. He needs to deliver on his potential.

Jameel McClain, 3rd SeasonWhat He's Done:  McClain has slowly earned more playing time after being an undrafted rookie in 2008. He started one game and made 30 tackles in 16 games last year.
What He's Going For:  McClain will have an opportunity to make it as the starter, but at this crowded position, McClain is focusing on getting more reps and more pass-rush opportunities.
What He Needs To Do:  Become more well-rounded. McClain is a good pass-rusher and has the size to stop the run, but he would excel from improving at multiple positions, including at both inside linebacker positions and perhaps even outside.

Brendon Ayanbadejo, 8th SeasonWhat He's Done:  Ayanbadejo was starting to assert himself as a linebacker last year (even winning Defensive Player of the Week) before his season-ending quadriceps injury.
What He's Going For:  The specimen of an athlete knows his defensive strength is matching up against smaller players in passing situations, so he would at least like to regain his third-down role.
What He Needs To Do:  Get healthy. Ayanbadejo's recovery has taken longer than he expected but he's still confident he'll be back for training camp. It will be a matter of getting his legs from there.

Jason Phillips, 2nd Season
What He's Done:  Phillips was on Injured Reserve with a knee injury all of last season and has been in gym shorts and no pads throughout OTAs. So he hasn't done much yet.
What He's Going For:  A roster spot. Phillips is fighting from behind since coaches haven't been able to see him on the field much and he has so much competition.
What He Needs To Do:  Stand out. Phillips isn't going to get a ton of reps – even in practice – because there are so many players vying for one spot. So when he does get a chance – likely with the 3rd team – he's going to have to shine. He will also have to prove himself on special teams.

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