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2013 NFL Free Agency: Dannell Ellerbe and the Hole at Linebacker

With a massive hole at Inside Linebacker, the Kansas City Chiefs will need to address the position. It just so happens that a great fit could hit the Free Agent market this year.


Anybody who has been following my perceived needs on this team over the past two or three years knows how much I have wanted another inside linebacker to slot in next to Derrick Johnson. My main desire is for a linebacker who can adequately stuff the run on early downs, yet can offer coverage ability. In short, I've been asking for an every-down linebacker. As of yet, that request hasn't been fufilled, and the Chiefs enter another year with a perceived weakness at inside linebacker.

Enter Dannell Ellerbe.

The 27 year old Baltimore Raven will be an unrestricted free agent this year, and with the Ravens cap troubles (and Joe Flacco's new cap hit), Ellerbe could see the free market. Prior to the this season, Ellerbe was mostly a special teams guy, notching 7 starts in his first three seasons. He started the 2012 season behind Jameel McClain and was sharing time with Brendon Ayanbadejo as the nickel linebacker. McClain went down, and Ellerbe stepped up next to Ray Lewis for the rest of the regular season and all four of the Ravens playoff games. In those games, Ellerbe was on the field in almost all down/distance scenarios, truly playing as an every down linebacker, dropping into pass coverage and stuffing the run alike. He's pretty tough, too, managing to play a couple games during the regular season with two casts to protect two broken thumbs. He also managed to gut out a pretty bad ankle injury in the AFC Championship and Super Bowl victories. Throughout all of this, he managed to play 13 games (7 starts) and racked up 92 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and a forced fumble. He led Pro Football Focus's rankings in Pass Rushing Productivity amongst inside linebackers during the season, as well. In the postseason, he netted 32 tackles (25 solo), 2 passes defensed, and one interception to help lead his team to a Super Bowl trophy.

Numbers are great and all, but how does he actually fit into the Chiefs defense? Most are quick to point out that when leaving the Ravens' defenses, players tend to struggle in others. This has been especially true for inside linebackers that have moved on, with the assumption that Ray Lewis was making them look better for the successful years in Baltimore. In truth, Dannell Ellerbe was the rock at inside linebacker this year, consistently outperforming his counterpart, even in the playoffs. Follow along using Clay Wendler's awesome GIFs and I'll show you how good Ellerbe has looked and how well he would fit into the Chiefs defense.

Run Defense

In a 1-gap scheme, it's inevitable that the linebackers will encounter situations where they must deal with members of the offense's blocking scheme, whether that be fullbacks, tight ends, or offensive linemen. In the 2-gap 3-4 most Chiefs fans are familiar with, the objective is to tie up the offensive linemen and allow the linebackers to make the plays. However, in a 1-gap scheme, players are concerned with shooting a specific gap and making sure all are filled, regardless of the blocker in/near the gap. That means 1-gap linebackers need to be able to get to their gaps and/or shed blockers. Here's how Ellerbe handles it.

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This comes from last weekend's Super Bowl game. In it, you'll notice that the 49ers run the read option well, identifying Terrell Suggs and handing the ball off to the running back. The hole left by Suggs is sizable, and with a fullback in front, there is a potential for big yardage. Ellerbe steps in the gap, gets good leverage, stacks and sheds the fullback. From there, it's an easy tackle for no gain. That's a textbook job of blowing up a run through the fullback by Ellerbe.

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Ellerbe is particularly good at avoiding the blocker while still shooting his gap. You'll see in this clip from the AFC Divisional Round game that he waits for just the right opening to appear next to Broncos center Adam Grant, then uses his speed and agility to knife through and blow up the play on 2nd and inches. That's a fantastic stand-up tackle to prevent the first down as well.

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In this clip, Ellerbe once again uses his agility and speed to get to his gap. This time, however, he sees the block coming and utilizes the nose tackle (who doesn't have a very good anchor and lets the guard get to his body) to set a screen on the oncoming blocker. This frees him up to shoot into the backfield and make the play at the line of scrimmage.


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The best part of Ellerbe's game might be his blitzing ability. With 4.5 sacks and more hits/pressures than any other inside linebacker, he definitely makes his presence known to the opposition's quarterback. In this clip from the AFC Championship game, you can see the Ravens lined up in their nickel package, only removing a defensive lineman. Ellerbe blitzes and takes a low shot from the running back. He continues to fight, though, getting his balance back and using his speed to force the quarterback to throw the ball quickly (for an incompletion) and to plant a big hit on Brady.

Pass Coverage

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Ellerbe also does well in zone coverage. Shown in this clip, he begins to run with the tight end as he enters Ellerbe's zone. The Broncos designed the play such that the tight end would clear out the linebacker and allow the wide receiver ample space to catch and run on a crossing route. Instead, Ellerbe identifies the crossing route, passes off the tight end to the safety, and now covers the new player in his zone. Manning thinks he has Decker open for an instant, but Ellerbe instead closes on him and breaks up the pass.

Dannell Ellerbe is not without his shortcomings. The Ravens positioned him against slot wide receivers in man coverage often, and while he didn't perform terribly, he also didn't perform particularly well. He's much better in short zone coverage where he can use his bursts of speed to cover an area rather than try and run with quicker receivers for 15-20 yards. He is stronger than he looks, but there are times against power running teams where the offensive linemen can overpower him if they can catch him. Still, there are very few linebackers in the league that can be said fulfill every aspect of the game well, and Ellerbe certainly performs at an impact level for his team.

Top to bottom, this might be the best guy to come along as a potential inside linebacker for this team since the switch to the 3-4, especially since he has experience playing in an attack-minded 1-gapping 3-4 defense. He could help others make the transition, as well as sharing some of the schemes that have helped the Ravens be successful over the years. I've been trumpeting an every-down inside linebacker for years now; if Ellerbe gets loose in free agency, is this finally the year it happens?

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