Is Dannell Ellerbe the 2016 Saints Defensive MVP?


After battling a variety of injury issues for the past year and a half since his arrival via a trade with the Miami Dolphins (in exchange for WR Kenny Stills) during the 2015 off-season, Saints starting weakside linebacker has had a tremendous season and has stood out as one of the best players at his position in the entire NFL. Is Ellerbe the team’s defensive MVP in 2016?

The New Orleans Saints are currently the 12th seeded team in the NFC. In order to move into the top 6 spots (or win the NFC South division) and qualify for the NFL playoffs, they must win all of their remaining four games and still hope for some teams in front of them to lose games.

At this point, that honestly appears to be a “long shot” — and while Saints fans cling to hope that the team can somehow pull it off; the Saints team themselves are well aware that they have no one but THEMSELVES to blame for their current predicament.

The Saints’ slimmest of playoff hopes obviously starts with the team’s ability to take care of their own business on the field, something that they failed to capitalize on last week in a miserable showing during a 28-13 loss to the Detroit Lions.

For the Saints to win ANY (let alone all of them) of their remaining games, they will need not only a return to form from their elite offense, but continued improvement from their undermanned defense as well.

Lost in all the close and ‘heart-breaking’ losses that have been the story of the 2016 season; has been the vastly improved play from their much-maligned defensive unit.

Dec 4, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) is tackled by New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (59) during the second quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Poor drafting, poor coaching, poor effort — and even worse — poor free agent decisions have caused the Saints defense to hover around the bottom of the league in every statistical category every year but one since 2012.

The start of the 2016 season brought new hope for this unit, however; that is, until an astonishing amount of injuries derailed all hope of improvement.

At one point the Saints were missing SEVEN projected starters on their defensive squad alone.

Ironically, despite the terrible statistics and low rankings attached to this collective group of players, what the unit does not lack is individual talent.

Defensive end Cam Jordan and defensive backs Delvin Breaux and Kenny Vaccaro could star for nearly every team in the NFL.

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Free agent signees Craig Robertson (linebacker) and Nick Fairley  (defensive tackle) have reversed the Saints recent trend of disastrous free agent signings, and 2016 draft picks Sheldon Rankins and Vonn Bell have shown signs of potential stardom.

Coordinator Dennis Allen has brought an aggressive game plan that the players have really bought into, and the squad has swarmed to the ball better than they have since the 2009 championship season.

After an awful start to the season defensively, the team began to get a few of the injured players back into the line-up, and fans began to see almost immediate improvement.

Rankins and Breaux’s return to the lineup, each from broken legs, have solidified the Saints defense, although each are obviously not at 100% of their abilities.

However — there is one player whom far and away has taken his play this season to “another leveI” — and as a result, has caused this New Orleans defense to transform on the field from a mild-mannered “Dr Jekyll” that was bullied all over the field, into a bit of a “Mr Hyde” that can actually be a threat to opposing offenses.

That player is starting weakside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe.

Dec 4, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (59) hits Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) as he throws during the second quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Truly playing “healthy” for the very first time since he arrived in New Orleans via a trade in the 2015 off-season, Ellerbe has had a phenomenal season thus far — and has finally shown the ability that the Saints knew he had when they sent WR Kenny Stills to Miami in exchange for the former World Champion linebacker with the Baltimore Ravens in 2012.

Since returning to the starting line-up, Ellerbe has recorded 26 tackles (18 solo, 8 assisted), along with QB sacks and an interception. More importantly, he has brought some “swagger” back to the often-maligned defensive unit.

Ellerbe is an 8th year linebacker from Georgia that played the first four years as a key member of a productive Baltimore Ravens defense that defeated the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII. Ellerbe played 4 seasons at the weakside linebacker spot; the very same position that he plays in Dennis Allen’s defense.

Following the Ravens’ championship-winning season, Ellerbe signed a five-year, $34.75 million deal with Miami in 2013 Free-Agency.

After two years as a Miami Dolphin, Ellerbe (and his contract) was acquired in a 2015 off-season trade by New Orleans that included wide receiver Kenny Stills; who was part of the roster “purge” by coach Sean Payton following the disastrous 2014 season.

Nov 17, 2013; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews (24) stiff arms Miami Dolphins middle linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (59) during the second half at Sun Life Stadium. Miami won 20-16. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The knock on Ellerbe was certainly not his talent, but instead the fact he was often on the injury list. Only ONCE in his 8-year career has he played in as many as 15 games in a single season –his first year with Miami in 2013.

The Saints have played 28 regular season games since acquiring Ellerbe, and the linebacker has only seen action in 11 — count them — ELEVEN games.

That includes only 5 of 12 games in 2016, even leaving a number of those contests very early due to injury. A number of our articles here at Big Easy Believer had even called for New Orleans to move on from Ellerbe, and even yours truly has gone on record calling for the same.

Now before any of you think that someone has spiked my afternoon coffee with something a bit more mind-altering; let’s take a look at some undeniable facts that occur when Ellerbe’s #59 is actually PRESENT in the Saints lineup.

Without Dannell Ellerbe in the lineup, the Saints gave up 34 points or more in five of their first six games, and gave up an average of almost 33 points per game.

In the five contests with Ellerbe back in the line-up, New Orleans has surrendered an average of a little over 23 points per game — an improvement of 10 points per game.

Nov 27, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (59) sacks Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff (16) during the fourth quarter of a game at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. The Saints defeated the Rams 49-21. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

New Orleans has one of the lowest ranked pass defenses in the league, and opposing quarterbacks have literally had their way with the Saints, taking advantage of their anemic pass rush and injury depleted secondary.

Despite the fact that teams were more likely to revert to the pass, the Saints only had 10 sacks as a team over the 7 games Ellerbe did not play, and in two of those did not even record a single sack.

In the five games he has played since his return, the team notched 13 QB sacks — 4 of them by Ellerbe.

The return of Rankins, who has the look of a potentially dominant player, and a top notch cornerback like Breaux; has obviously helped Dennis Allen bring the more aggressive game planning that he prefers.

Despite playing in less than half of his team’s games, Ellerbe is 3rd on the team with 4 sacks, behind Nick Fairley’s 4.5 and Cam Jordan’s 5, and only a half sack away from Ellerbe’s career high for an entire season (set in 2012 with the Ravens).

The 2015 Saints defense had much the same look with #59 in the lineup. In the 6 game that Ellerbe actually was able to get on the field, New Orleans was 4-2, and gave up over 30 points only twice (both losses).

Dannell Ellerbe has been a clear difference maker for this defense when he plays.

Nov 13, 2016; New Orleans, LA, USA; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe (59) and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins (98) celebrate after a sack during the second quarter of a game against the Denver Broncos at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The Saints pass rush, in particular, has been far better.  He has proven to be a very effective blitzer and has always been one of the better pass coverage linebackers and run defenders in the league.

The problem, as it has been most of his career, has been staying on the field.

At this moment, Ellerbe has only played about 30 percent of the defensive snaps. His contract will void if he plays 80 percent of the snaps. Ellerbe could have made a serious amount of money this year if he hadn’t missed seven games because of injury, due to various clauses in his current deal.

The Saints have a lot of decisions to make at the linebacker position in the upcoming off-season.

They need to get both younger and faster at the position, without any doubt.

November 6, 2016; Santa Clara, CA, USA; New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Stephone Anthony (50) before the game against the San Francisco 49ers at Levi

Free agent linebacker James Laurinaitis (whom we warned our readers back in late February before the Saints even signed him was likely near the end of his career) turned out to be another free agent “bust”, and was released last month.

The jury still remains “out of the room” on 2nd year linebacker Stephone Anthony at this point, as he has clearly regressed from his rookie season until now; in part perhaps to his mental grasp of defensive concepts, as well as an obvious lack of skill in coverage situations in pass defense (which we saw yet once again when he was beaten for a TD against the Lions).

Will they ever begin to see dividends in their supposed faith with Stephone Anthony? Or are they simply reluctant to admit that Anthony may yet be another draft pick in recent years that just hasn’t panned out?

Perhaps for the immediate future, Craig Robertson is the answer at middle linebacker — but that isn’t exactly “written in stone” at this point.

Next: New Orleans Saints vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 5 Bold Predictions

And will New Orleans decide to move on from 31-year old Ellerbe at the end of the 2016 season because they simply cannot rely on his presence on the field?

Those are questions that the front office will have to address soon enough.

But given the total impact that he has made upon the overall play of the defensive unit since his return to the starting line-up, Dannell Ellerbe — for this 2016 regular season that has 4 games still yet to play — is the MVP of the 2016 Saints defense……