Dolphins' Ellerbe can build own legacy

Linebacker Dannell Ellerbe is excited about his chance to be a leader on Miami's defense. Ric Tapia/Icon SMI

DAVIE, Fla. -- Dannell Ellerbe had to travel more than 1,100 miles south to escape Ray Lewis' large and overwhelming shadow.

Coming off a Super Bowl victory, Ellerbe had a tough decision to make in free agency: He could either be heir apparent to Lewis -- the legendary Baltimore Ravens middle linebacker who retired in February -- or aim to build his own legacy at middle linebacker with the Miami Dolphins.

Ellerbe opted not to spend the rest of his NFL career trying to fill Lewis' shoes in Baltimore. Instead, he signed a five-year, $35 million contract with up-and-coming Miami, where he believes he can make a bigger impact on the field and in the locker room.

“I wanted to come to a team where I can be a leader, where they needed me, and I can be a voice on the team,” Ellerbe told ESPN.com’s AFC East blog this week. “Basically, [the Dolphins] showed me that they really wanted me. ... They want me to be a leader of this defense.”

Ellerbe, 27, is entering the prime of his career and brings much-needed championship experience to the Dolphins. Although he chose not to replace Lewis in Baltimore, Ellerbe learned a lot from the future Hall of Famer and plans to bring that knowledge and leadership to Miami.

He is already making a good first impression with the Dolphins' coaching staff during the start of organized team activities.

“I like a lot of things that I see. He’s a bright guy,” Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin said. “He’s very business-like in the building. He comes in, gets his work done and very, very attentive. You’ve got to be strong down the middle, offensively and defensively, and he’s a guy that we’re looking for to help coordinate that front seven. We like what we’ve seen thus far.”

The Dolphins had a near-complete makeover at linebacker this offseason. Miami spent a combined $61 million on Ellerbe and former Oakland Raiders linebacker Philip Wheeler, 28. They will replace aging veterans Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett, who were released. Miami’s 2010 second-round pick Koa Misi, 26, is the other starting linebacker. He's playing out the final year of his rookie contract.

The Dolphins had the NFL’s 27th-rated pass defense in 2012 and struggled defending tight ends and slot receivers over the middle. Linebackers Ellerbe, Wheeler and Misi are much more athletic and have the potential to grow together.

According to ESPN.com NFL analyst Matt Williamson, the Dolphins certainly got “younger and faster” in the middle by replacing Dansby with Ellerbe.

“He can play 4-3 middle linebacker or 3-4 inside linebacker with [rookie first-round pick] Dion Jordan on board,” Williamson explained. “Ellerbe is best coming downhill. He’s a good blitzer and runs well in a straight line.”

Ellerbe is part of a strong free-agent class for the Dolphins that also includes Wheeler, former Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes, tight end Dustin Keller, and receivers Brandon Gibson and Mike Wallace, who was a former rival of Ellerbe.

Wallace and Ellerbe had some heated battles the past four years as members of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ravens. Pittsburgh-Baltimore is one of the league's most intense rivalries. Wallace joked during his introductory news conference that he doesn’t like too many Ravens but must get along with Ellerbe now that they are teammates.

“I’m with him every day and we speak every day -- it’s not anything personal,” Ellerbe said with a smile. “It’s a business. The only way it would be a problem is if we were still with the Ravens and Steelers. As long as he didn’t go to Georgia Tech, I don’t have any problems with him.” (Ellerbe starred at Georgia.)

This is an important year for the Dolphins, who haven’t made the playoffs or won the AFC East since the 2008 season. On paper, this is the strongest roster Miami has had in recent memory.

It is also a good year for the Dolphins to try to make a push in the AFC East. The New England Patriots are the perennial favorites but may have taken a step back, particularly on offense with the loss of 2012 starters Wes Welker and Brandon Lloyd and injuries at tight end. The Buffalo Bills and New York Jets also have significant changes on their rosters and coaching staffs. It could take another year or two for the Bills and Jets to get their franchises back on track.

Ellerbe will be an important factor in the Dolphins' success this season. He never missed the playoffs in four years in Baltimore and does not want his streak to end in Miami.

“The sky is the limit,” Ellerbe said of Miami’s potential. “I haven’t been around here long enough to see exactly what’s going on. But from what I see in the film room and the statistics the coaches are putting up in the first week of OTAs, I feel like the sky is the limit for us. ... It’s a lot of good things we have to build on around here.”