Dannell Ellerbe, starting weak side linebacker for the Saints, has provided two years with very similar results: impact when on the field, but very little in the way of reliability in terms of staying on the field. After playing in only six games and starting in four during the 2015 campaign, Ellerbe managed to get on the field for nine games, starting in eight of them in 2016. For fans, the most frustrating aspect of that fact is that when on the field, Ellerbe’s impact is tangible.
Ellerbe came to the Saints as a plus coverage linebacker, able to mitigate the receiving damage from tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. The 2016 season saw his pass coverage skills stay roughly in the same ballpark, with some minor miscues, while his pass rushing ability was showcased as evidenced by a 4-game stretch (Week 10 to 13) in which he recorded a sack in each game.
During that stretch, the Saints often placed Ellerbe on the line of scrimmage as a stand-up edge pass rusher. He showed the ability to threaten the corners of a protection scheme with surprising bend and balance. The pictures below illustrate what was perhaps the most impressive sack of the season for Ellerbe.
Ellerbe is lined up wide in a 2-point stance, threatening to blitz. This is very similar to what would normally be asked of a 3-4 outside linebacker.
The offensive line slid to the quarterback’s right at the snap, but the tight end and running back were both assigned to take care of any pressure off the edge. As you can see, Ellerbe’s burst of speed and balance off the edge put the running back in a terrible position to protect the passer.
After beating the running back, he’s able to level out towards the quarterback as the tight end gets a hand on him in an attempted block. However, he shows incredible balance through contact as he’s able to blow past and the tight end only works to keep him upright, rather than actually prevent pressure on Cam Newton.
The end result is most important: quarterback down on the ground, ball in hand. It’s not just that Ellerbe applied pressure, but he converted the pressure to a sack. Granted, the sack was against a running back and tight end in pass protection, so it’s not like he was beating a world class pass protector that you might often find at left tackle. However, given that he’s not a primary pass rusher, he’ll often find himself matched against running backs and tight ends when rushing as the offense won’t prioritize him the same way they will Cameron Jordan or Sheldon Rankins.
On the other hand, he had some lapses in coverage, with the most notable being the first play of the game versus the Rams.
To understand what went wrong, we must understand how it happened. Ellerbe starts the play off between Craig Robertson and Vonn Bell; however, before the snap, he switches positions with Robertson.
The reason they swap positions is because Vonn Bell creeps up to the line of scrimmage as a blitzer. The Saints are employing a man-free blitz scheme here, in which each defender is in man coverage with a free safety over the top as the extra defender, and the remaining defenders are rushing the passer. Ellerbe moves to the same side of the formation as the running back because he’s in man coverage against Todd Gurley, with Craig Robertson in man coverage versus tight end Lance Kendricks.
Here is the point in which the frustrations come to a head: Ellerbe (red) is in no-man’s land. Robertson, Breaux, Moore, and Vaccaro have all covered their men admirably, while Ellerbe runs to cover the middle of the field when he should be taking Todd Gurley (blue) out of the backfield. If Ellerbe covers Gurley initially like he should, either Goff hesitates to throw the ball, resulting in a sack from Bell (black) or the throw lands in the hands of the running back as Ellerbe meets him at the line of scrimmage to tackle him for no gain.
Because of this lapse in coverage, Gurley hauls in the pass and scampers to the Saints 45-yard line for a 30-yard play on the very first play from scrimmage. Ellerbe doesn’t lack the necessary physical traits to be productive in coverage, and overall he’s a good player in the passing game, but a mental error like this on the first play of the game is nothing to brush aside.
Dannell Ellerbe, overall, is a solid player. Saints fans can surely attest to the fact that when he’s on the field, the Saints defense is noticeably more productive. More than the occasional mental lapses in coverage, his inability to stay on the field is his greatest downfall. Despite playing in the first three preseason games, he missed 7 of the first 8 games of the regular season due to injury.
Ellerbe’s contract had him account for $3.25 million against the salary cap in 2016, despite playing only 444 snaps. That amounts to $7,320 per snap. In comparison, Cameron Jordan got paid $6,031 per snap in 2016 despite being paid almost twice as much. Essentially, that’s just a financial way of saying that Ellerbe gets paid too much to play so little. His contract isn’t inherently bad; a good, starting linebacker is worth more than $3.25 million on your salary cap. However, that assumes he’s going to play an average of more than 7.5 games a year.
2017 is not a make-or-break season for Ellerbe. Nope. It’s a make-or-break offseason for him. The Saints could save $2.5 million on the salary cap if they cut him to make room for other free agent signings, a potentially viable option given that Craig Robertson showed the capability to step up and start in several roles. If they decide to keep him, Ellerbe will need to show that he can remain healthy and provide consistent value throughout the season to justify a spot on the 53-man roster in August.