In an unpredictable Dolphins’ offseason, it was Jeff Ireland’s first curveball.
Despite pressing needs at receiver, cornerback, offensive tackle, defensive end, and tight end heading in to free agency, the Dolphins weren’t satisfied with a defense that surrendered the seventh fewest points in the entire league a year ago.
Remodeling a linebacker corps that was solid but aging proved to be one of the Dolphins’ unexpected priorities.
And when news broke that Miami had agreed to terms with Dannell Ellerbe, an up-and-coming linebacker that was expected to fill the shoes of the retiring Ray Lewis in Baltimore, Jeff Ireland made it clear that he wasn’t playing any games this offseason.
It was the first indication that all his chips were at the center of the table, for better or for worse.
Signing Ellerbe was also the first domino to fall in a concerted effort to get younger, faster, and more attacking on defense. Karlos Dansby, who was released shortly after Ellerbe signed, racked up 134 tackles last year for Kevin Coyle’s defense. But he didn’t make the game-changing plays he was known for in Arizona during his Dolphins’ tenure. And he opened his mouth too much – which has proven to be a no-no under Philbin – frequently questioning the organization and praising his own ability.
Sure, Dansby could have been solid for one or two more seasons, but the Dolphins think they are ahead of the curve replacing Dansby with Ellerbe and also Kevin Burnett with Phillip Wheeler. Moves that look brilliant on paper. But there is a reason why many Dolphins fans have been only cautiously optimistic regarding Ireland’s spending spree.
Ellerbe wouldn’t be the first promising free agent to flame out if he doesn’t live up to the expectations that will come with signing a five-year, $35 million contract. And talented, but unproven free agents like Ellerbe are known to do just that after signing inflated multi-year deals.
Ellerbe dominated for stretches during the Ravens’ recent Super Bowl run, but he’s never amassed 100 tackles, he’s never played a full 16 game season, and he’s only started a combined 14 games in four years. So while the Dolphins have gotten younger and more athletic at linebacker, there is no guarantee they actually got better.
Let’s set Dannell Ellerbe’s over/under for his first season in aqua and orange to begin the discussion of what to expect from him as the new-found leader of the Dolphins’ linebacker corps.
Dannell Ellerbe over/under: 115 tackles, 3.25 sacks, and 13.5 starts
My take: Over on all counts
Some may point to Ellerbe only tallying 92 tackles a year ago compared to Karlos Dansby’s 134 to downplay the significance of this signing. But that comparison is misleading.
According to Football Outsiders, Dansby played 1,128 snaps last season for the Dolphins. As for Ellerbe in Baltimore? Only 383. Assuming Ellerbe could duplicate that production – highly unlikely but just to put things in perspective – he would have made around 270 tackles playing the same amount of snaps as Dansby.
Ellerbe probably isn’t going to shatter the NFL record for tackles in a season, but the numbers indicate he dominated in limited action for the Ravens and that he was far more productive than Karlos Dansby in 2012.
Now that doesn’t negate the fact that durability is a huge concern. Ellerbe has missed at least three games in every season he’s played. So it’s not completely fair to credit him for a full season of production.
But if he can stay healthy this season for the Dolphins, I expect a dominant campaign for the 27-year old veteran. The complacently that can set in after signing a multi-year contract in free agency could be a deterrent. Especially considering Ellerbe has already tasted a Super Bowl title with the Ravens. But if he stays hungry and eager to prove that he can be an elite starting linebacker in this league, the sky is the limit for Ellerbe as a mainstay for the Dolphins’ defense.
Now it’s your turn! Tell me if you think Ellerbe will be able to produce at least 116 tackles and 3.5 sacks while starting 14 or more games.