When the Buffalo Bills signed free agent outside linebacker Kawika Mitchell, Keith Ellison was prepared for a season as a backup. It was no different than when he expected to spend his rookie season behind Takeo Spikes.
But in both situations, injuries allowed Ellison to move into the starting lineup. He started seven games as a rookie replacement for Spikes and Angelo Crowell. This season, he's starting for Crowell, who was placed on injured reserve after surprising the team by deciding to have knee surgery the week of the opener.
"You just never know in this league," Ellison said. "That's why you always have to be ready because you're only one play away. It's a cliche to say, but that's how it is."
Many team observers believe the Bills would prefer Ellison wasn't a starter. It's not that they don't like the former sixth-round draft pick. They just felt they needed someone better, hence the acquisition of Mitchell.
Maybe the Bills want to put Ellison on the bench, but he keeps finding his way back in the lineup. And you know what? The Bills couldn't be happier.
"The great thing about Keith is he prepares every day in the meetings and in practice," defensive coordinator Perry Fewell said. "He plays more than one position. He plays weak-side backer, he's our backup Mike [middle] linebacker and he plays on the strong side. In some practices he might play all three. He has a lot of knowledge in his head and he's taken well to coaching. It's good to have a guy like that because he takes his job seriously. He knows that we count on him to be our emergency guy at all three linebacker positions."
It's not as if Ellison hasn't performed well when he's played. Starting seven of 14 games as a rookie, Ellison had 61 tackles, one sack, one interception and one fumble recovery. He missed the first four games of last season with an ankle injury, but returned to start nine of the last 12 and finished with 45 tackles, one sack, one interception and five passes defended.
Despite all of that, the Bills still brought Mitchell in to replace him.
"It didn't bother me," Ellison said. "Kawika has done a lot in this league, so I thought he was a great addition. He's provided great leadership for the young linebackers on this team. I was ready to accept a backup role if that's what was best for the team."
Of course, it didn't work out that way. Instead of playing behind Mitchell, Ellison is playing with him. The only difference is where Ellison lines up.
He spent his first two years playing on the weak (or right) side of the defense, but he was moved to the strong side during the offseason.
"I've been doing it all through training camp, so now I'm real comfortable with it," Ellison said. "But when I first moved over you see things a little differently. I'm not used to having the tight end on my side or a three technique [defensive tackle]. It's minor differences, but I feel like I've settled into it now."
Playing on the tight end side usually requires someone bigger than the 6-foot, 229-pound Ellison. But what he lacks in size and strength, he makes up for with good athletic ability, quickness and instincts.
Those attributes have helped him register 15 tackles, including one behind the line of scrimmage.
"He's just a very good athlete for the position, but maybe above and beyond that is his feel for the game and his smarts and toughness," head coach Dick Jauron said of Ellison. "I like his demeanor on the field. He plays really hard."
One of the reasons the Bills drafted Ellison was his skill set was ideally suited to their defensive scheme, which places an emphasis on speed and pursuit to the football.
In addition to playing the run, Ellison is rangy enough to play in pass coverage.
"He fits the mold of a Chicago 2, Tampa 2, Buffalo 2 defense," Fewell said. "In college, he was a strong safety and then moved to an outside linebacker position. He's not as fast as a safety has to be at this level, but he's got the movement skills. He brings versatility to the defense and we try to find different ways to use him."
It's quite possible the Bills will bring in someone else to try to replace Ellison. Maybe it will be another veteran free agent or some high draft choice.
But Ellison is more concerned about this season and what he can do to prove he's worthy of holding down the job on a permanent basis.
"I believe I'm a better football player now than I was three years ago because I know the defense better," he said. "It's one thing to know the overall scheme, but to get the little details down, that makes a big difference in the things you're able to do out there. Being more aware of what's required in this defense allows you to make plays and do the [things] that keep you on the field."