Keith Ellison wasn't supposed to be the starting strong side linebacker last year, but a bizarre set of circumstances involving a chronic knee problem for veteran Angelo Crowell landed him on injured reserve four days before last season's opener. The door was open and Ellison walked through, starting 14 games and finishing the season as the team's fifth-leading tackler.
"I felt good," Ellison said of his 2008 campaign. "There are always things you can work on and get better at, but for the most part I thought I did a pretty good job. This year I'm just trying to improve on that and get better and just help this defense get better."
Ellison will also need to fend off some young upstarts eager and hungry for regular playing time on the defensive side of the ball. The two linebackers who figure to be Ellison's stiffest competition are Alvin Bowen and rookie Nic Harris.
Free agent signee Pat Thomas could be an outside linebacker candidate, but with John DiGiorgio's health still a question mark coming off ACL surgery, Thomas is expected to spend more time at middle linebacker.
Bowen, like DiGiorgio is also coming off ACL surgery, but is four months ahead of DiGiorgio and was full go in the spring practices. Head coach Dick Jauron admitted they were pacing the former fifth-round pick through OTAs so as not to overextend him coming off the injury. But linebackers coach Matt Sheldon liked what he saw from Bowen.
"He's really done a nice job in the offseason with the rehab and then he's been here really for all our technique work and spring practice stuff," Sheldon said.
"It's definitely nice to be back out there running around," said Bowen. "Being out of it for a little while it takes a little while, a few reps, but along the way here it's getting better."
Giving Bowen an edge over the rookie Harris is having a year in the Bills defensive system. Though he wasn't able to execute it on the practice field last year, Bowen was in all the meetings every week of the regular season. Sheldon sees it benefiting the second-year linebacker already.
"We see him going quicker from the eyes to the feet," said Sheldon. "His body movements are still coming back from the injury but he's making progress all the time. He's made some nice improvement and it's based on time at position because he's been here."
Still when the pads go on Bowen is going to have to overcome the mental hurdle of trusting his knee again. He realizes that's a must if he's to push the veteran Ellison for the job.
"It'll probably take contact practice and taking that first good shot on it to get over it," said Bowen.
For the rookie Harris, not only is the defensive system a transition, but so is his position. Predominantly a safety at Oklahoma, Harris has to learn outside linebacker in Buffalo's scheme.
Harris, however, has a high football I.Q.. Oklahoma's coaching staff had him play five different positions in his time with the Sooners. So being able to focus on just one since arriving in Buffalo in early May has been a welcome assignment.
"I have a lot of confidence," said Harris. "I want to come out and make plays. It's new, but I'm learning on the curve. I don't want to make the "rookie mistake." I just try to be as poised as I can possibly be and make the plays that I should make."
"Nic's got good movement skills and he does learn our stuff very quickly," said Sheldon. "It's a compliment to his college coaching staff. He had solid coaching in college and played multiple positions which really helps."
Harris ran primarily with the second defensive unit in the spring practices, but got some first team reps here and there through the course of the OTAs. There's no denying he's a quick study, and with coverage ability due to his safety background, Harris offers three down ability for the subpackages.
"Ultimately I want to come in and be an instant contributor," he said.
Still there's no way to overlook Ellison's time on the job. Set to enter his fourth season, all of which have been in Perry Fewell's defensive system and 30 starts under his belt, it's hard to imagine Bowen or Harris with no NFL experience coming in and wrestling the job away.
"We kind of think it's a race," said Sheldon. "When you first get here and you're new it's a race to see how quickly you can learn our scheme and how you can get our movements mastered. When you have time at a position you've got a lead in the race. And a big benefit Keith brings is his experience playing and starting."