Readers of Buffalo Rumblings have spoken: over the next several weeks, we're going to break down the games of 12 NFL free agent targets of interest to Buffalo Bills fans in an effort to better grasp the type of impact the Bills might be able to acquire on the free agent market. (Our review and posting schedule for those dozen prospects is at the bottom of this post.)
We start those efforts today with Baltimore Ravens linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, a player that many consider the heir apparent to the retiring Ray Lewis as Baltimore's top inside linebacker. Here's the thing, though: Ellerbe was already their top linebacker last season, even with Lewis on the roster.
- Week 3 (W 31-30 over New England Patriots): Ellerbe had a huge game against Tom Brady and company, recording nine tackles and 1.5 sacks. Naturally, that's one to watch.
- Week 7 (L 13-43 to Houston Texans): Baltimore was dominated in this contest, and I wanted to see Ellerbe's performance within the context of that type of game.
- Note: Before getting into the actual work of this, I was eager to see Ellerbe against the Washington Redskins, when Robert Griffin III and that unique offense of his beat the Ravens. Alas, Ellerbe was out with an injured ankle that week - but we still see him work against that type of offense later on in the list.
- AFC Championship (W 28-13 over New England Patriots): Ellerbe had another big game. I wanted to see if anything had changed from the first Patriots game. Mostly, I wanted to watch the Pats lose again.
- Super Bowl XLVII (W 34-31 over San Francisco 49ers): I remembered Ellerbe playing well in this contest, but I wanted a closer look against Colin Kaepernick and the read-option offense.
Ellerbe is a very good run defender. Lining up predominantly on the weak side of the formation in the games I reviewed, Ellerbe was consistently fast to diagnose and routinely beat blockers to spots, making several tackles at or near the line of scrimmage. To my eye, this is the clear strength of Ellerbe's game, and it's exemplified by the following play from the Super Bowl.
Here you can see Ellerbe on the weak side of the alignment (with Lewis on the strong side). (If you can't spot the weak side of the alignment, just look for the guy with the hair - that's Ellerbe.) San Francisco has a whopping 10 players (including the elite-level running quarterback) in a tight, run-first alignment, but Baltimore stays in its base hybrid defense with seven players in the box. (Whoa, right?)
Here's where Ellerbe was fast to diagnose. San Francisco has sealed off the nose guard and has a blocker beelining for Lewis. Ellerbe is supposed to be taken care of at the second level by the weak-side guard, but Ellerbe flows to the strong side and beats the blocker into the running lane, dipping around the block with ease thanks to his low center of gravity.
Having beaten the block, Ellerbe squares up on Frank Gore and takes him down for a loss.
Ellerbe is also capable as a strong-side "hammer" linebacker, where he's crashing into the line taking on blocks. However, he doesn't have ideal size to do this, and can be swallowed up by double teams pretty easily. He's best picking his way around trash, but he can also stack and shed, and is really quite good at getting off of blocks to affect runs. When he reaches the ball carrier, he's compact and powerful, delivering a pop or wrapping up with sound technique.
In Baltimore's hybrid defense, Ellerbe is a true every-down linebacker. (Sadly, I couldn't pull snap count data for the four games I watched; rest assured that Ellerbe was out there a lot.) As such, he is obviously dropped into coverage quite often - and he's not bad at it. It's clearly not the strength of his game, as he's not as instinctual in a drop as he is reading blockers and playing the run, but he's fluid in his drop and can cover a good amount of ground. By no means is he a pass-game liability, though he's also not exactly an impactful player in this area of the game.
Ellerbe struggles in particular with two things defending the pass: he's not great breaking down in space to make tackles, and he can have trouble on intermediate seam throws. Receivers can typically stop in a dime and juke around Ellerbe without much trouble, as he's not overly agile - and when he gets going downhill, he can struggle to change direction. But that's true of most linebackers. Ellerbe can turn and run down the seam - his speed is underrated - but he's a shorter, squattier linebacker, so teams can typically throw over the top of Ellerbe without trouble.
It's also worth noting that Ellerbe is a good blitzer. He finished the season with 4.5 sacks, and is quite good at getting skinny to squeeze through gaps.
Ellerbe's a really good football player, and he has a good amount of leverage as a former undrafted free agent that has become Baltimore's best natural linebacker. He's a snug fit for a hybrid defense in that he's a tough, instinctual run defender with enough athleticism to get by in coverage. While not an elite play-maker, Ellerbe makes plays and affects the running game negatively for his opponents.
It seems clear that Baltimore would prefer to retain its 27-year-old inside linebacker, and right now, all indications are that they will - it would be immensely difficult for them to replace Lewis and Ellerbe in the same off-season. I expect Ellerbe to be in Baltimore in 2013 and beyond. If he does hit the open market, it wouldn't shock me if a team overpays a bit for his services; he's an above-average starting linebacker without question, but hardly an elite player nor an elite talent. In Buffalo, he'd represent a gigantic upgrade over what's already on the roster.
Here's the rest of our viewing schedule, which will continue on Saturday with a closer look at another popular Ravens defender. Did anyone else watch tape of Ellerbe over the last couple of days?
|Player||Pos.||Team||Review dates||Posting date|
|Dannell Ellerbe||ILB||Ravens||You're reading it now.|
|Paul Kruger||OLB||Ravens||2/14-15||SAT 2/16|
|Dwayne Bowe||WR||Chiefs||2/16-17||TUE 2/19|
|Connor Barwin||OLB||Texans||2/18-19||WED 2/20|
|Mike DeVito||DT||Jets||2/20-21||FRI 2/22|
|Patrick Chung||S||Patriots||2/23-24||MON 2/25|
|Erin Henderson||ILB||Vikings||2/23-24||WED 2/27|
|Alex Smith||QB||49ers||2/25-26||THU 2/28|
|Ramses Barden||WR||Giants||2/27-28||SUN 3/3|
|Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie||CB||Eagles||3/3-4||TUE 3/5|
|Jared Cook||TE||Titans||3/6-7||FRI 3/8|
|Manny Lawson||OLB||Bengals||3/6-7||SAT 3/9|