Fans of the New Orleans Saints have made it abundantly clear that there’s some dissatisfaction with veteran linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who has yet to suit up for the team in the 2016 regular season.
Through his conference call with the media on Thursday morning, head coach Sean Payton acknowledged a question about Ellerbe’s availability, saying there was no setback with him. Payton added that he was anxious to see what happened in practice, and it turned out to be a big bunch of nothing as Ellerbe didn’t participate in practice again.
"We're kind of pushing it and pushing it and he's been real diligent. Those (injured) guys were all here during the bye rehabbing. We'll keep you posted," said Payton.
After being a star and staple for years on the vaunted Baltimore Ravens defense and earning a Super Bowl ring, Ellerbe cashed in on a 5-year, $35 million contract with the Miami Dolphins in 2013. He was moved to the team’s middle linebacker spot, and didn’t have a particularly good season. Ellerbe was then moved to the outside, but spent the majority of 2014 on injured reserve with a hip injury and had surgery on it in mid-November of the season to correct the problem.
Heading into 2015, Ellerbe was acquired by the Saints from the Dolphins in what seemed to be a real bargain that involved picking up an extra third-round pick by sending off promising young wide receiver Kenny Stills. Needless to say, it appeared the Saints got the upper hand by getting a coverage linebacker that could match up to tight ends and running backs, and the draft pick turned into Florida State’s P.J. Williams.
Ellerbe was just excited for the opportunity, and even restructured his contract upon joining the team. “It don’t matter if it’s a 3-4 or 4-3. As long as I get to play the weak side, I’m good. I get to show my athleticism and do a couple of things, blitz, cover, instead of just playing in the middle and doing coverage. I really didn’t blitz the last time I played,” Ellerbe said in late June 2015.
"As long as I'm healthy I know that I'll have a spot on the team and be able to play."
2015 was about getting Ellerbe back into the swing of things, and many understood that he wasn’t going to be readily available. He eventually made his debut in Week 4 against the Dallas Cowboys, and would play four straight games for Rob Ryan’s defense. Without question, the Saints were a different squad with him on the field, and there was no better example other than Week 6’s win over the Atlanta Falcons.
After Week 7 against the Indianapolis Colts, we wouldn’t hear from Ellerbe again until Weeks 14 and 15, and that was all she wrote. Call it a coincidence, but the Saints were 4-2 with him in the lineup.
The offseason came and went, and once again Ellerbe would restructure his deal and vowed to be 100 percent by training camp. We saw enough from Ellerbe in the preseason, as he played in 96 combined snaps from games against the Patriots, Texans, and Steelers. It backed up the claims that were said during the offseason of him having a ‘dynamite’ training camp. However, the last time anyone could ever attest to seeing him play actual football would be Sept. 1.
Ellerbe wouldn’t suit up for Week 1 action, and we kept hearing the familiar story of him being close to action and progressing. But, was he really? Every Saints injury report since Week 1 has listed Ellerbe as Did Not Practice with a quad injury.
As frustrating as it may sound, it’s hard to project when Ellerbe will be practicing again, no matter what anyone says. The Saints haven’t exactly needed him, as Craig Robertson has filled in adequately for Ellerbe’s absences. However, one could argue that a shift by Robertson to middle linebacker in Week 4 with James Laurinaitis being out could have been easier with having Ellerbe in the lineup.
Even when and if Ellerbe does come back, he’ll still be on a pitch count and won’t be taking anyone’s job. The reality is the Saints have a player who has just played in seven of the last possible 36 games, and they’ll be fortunate to get any type of contribution from him this season.
Ellerbe’s 2-year, $5 million deal is extremely friendly for the Saints, especially considering that it’s highly unlikely that he’ll reach the void clause of his contract for 2017 by playing in over 80 percent of the team’s snaps. Part of the restructured deal gave him a chance to earn an additional $2.5 million per season by getting on the field, but time is running out for him to cash in on it given his track history this season. He has to get to 50 percent of team snaps to reach the first gate, and that just doesn’t seem too realistic.
The Saints could save $2.5 million by cutting him next season, as they are highly unlikely to find a trade partner for a linebacker that will be on the wrong side of 30. Unfortunately for fans, it’s just something they’ll have to sit through and see how it plays out. Dennis Allen’s defense can’t count on Dannell Ellerbe being in the mix for this season, and it increasingly looks like his professional days are numbered.