New Eagles linebacker Dannell Ellerbe is not your average midseason signing. This is a playmaker with eight years of NFL experience, and a starter for the Super Bowl champion Ravens in 2012.
Ask any player in the Eagles’ locker room who knows Ellerbe or really studies defense, and they’ll tell you the same thing. This is not just any street free agent.
Ellerbe represents a huge upgrade for the Eagles.
“Dominant player from what I remember in Baltimore,” Eagles safety and former teammate Corey Graham said on Monday. “Running through linemen, very physical, very aggressive. Flat-out beast. We used to call him ‘Eller-beast.’
“When he was out there and when he was healthy, he’s a monster.”
Eagles linebacker Nigel Bradham even went so far as to liken the addition of Ellerbe to the club’s recent trade for Pro Bowl running back Jay Ajayi.
“It’s the same situation as when we got the running back,” Bradham said. “We’re just adding depth and trying to get stronger as a team as we’re keeping this thing going.”
Unlike Graham, Bradham never played alongside Ellerbe, nor had they so much as met each other before. But Bradham would tell you he “knows” Ellerbe very well from following his career with the Ravens, Dolphins and Saints.
“Linebackers know linebackers,” said Bradham, who added Ellerbe made a “key impact” in Baltimore’s last world championship. “We need him.”
There’s no question the Eagles could use the help at linebacker. Both Bradham and Mychal Kendricks have been spectacular, but depth became an issue after Jordan Hicks suffered a season-ending injury.
Of course, if Ellerbe is the solution, why was he a free agent to begin with? Why is he now playing for his fourth NFL team? He turns 32 years old in a matter of weeks and has never earned an invitation to the Pro Bowl or any other notable accolades, so how good can he be?
Ellerbe’s issues are primarily injury-related. He played one game in 2014, six games in 2015 and nine games in 2016.
Most recently, Ellerbe missed time with a broken foot, which he says has been healed for quite awhile.
“I was healthy enough to play going into training camp,” Ellerbe said. “The whole time I’ve just been working out and getting in shape, staying in shape.”
Otherwise, there’s no denying he can contribute if he’s finally 100 percent. Undrafted out of Georgia in 2009, Ellerbe has started 42 NFL games, recording 368 tackles, 10½ sacks, three interceptions and two forced fumbles. He also has 48 tackles, one forced fumble and one interception in 10 playoff appearances.
“When he’s healthy, he’s very explosive, very smart,” said Eagles wide receiver Torrey Smith, another former teammate in Baltimore. “He understands defenses very well, and he can be a great playmaker for us.”
Bradham was willing to go out on a limb and predict Ellerbe would be successful for the Eagles.
“He’s going to have an impact,” Bradham said.
“For us following the game for some time, we’ve all seen him play. He’s a physical, hard-nosed linebacker. He has speed. He’s going to be a great addition for us, and he added depth. We’re even deeper now.”
As far as Ellerbe’s role, that is yet to be determined. For the time being, he isn’t locked in at middle or outside linebacker for the Eagles, though he’s primarily played weakside as a pro. He may not play at all initially.
The way Bradham and Kendricks are balling, there’s no need to force Ellerbe into the lineup, either.
And while Ellerbe says he hasn’t played special teams since he was with the Ravens in 2012, he’s ready to assist in whatever phase he’s called upon. There’s no concern about rust, despite not having practiced or seen game action since last December.
“I don’t think I’ve ever sat out this long, but when you’re born to do something, you pick it back up real quick,” Ellerbe said. “It’s like riding a bike.”
The Eagles aren’t just getting a quality linebacker. Based on accounts from his former teammates, Ellerbe is a quality person as well. Smith called Ellerbe a “great addition to the locker room,” while Graham said the newcomer will fit right in.
With the Eagles’ record at 8-1, team chemistry seems almost as important as talent these days. Ellerbe checks off both boxes.
Free-agent additions this time of year typically amount to picking off the top of the trash heap, pure depth signings, or future stashes. It’s not often a team in the Eagles’ position is able to nab a player of this caliber.
Whether Ellerbe is the game-changer his teammates remember or his ability has eroded with time and injuries, one thing is for certain: The Eagles are leaving no stone unturned in 2017. Adding another motivated athlete with a championship pedigree can’t hurt.