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Barry Hirstius

Ellerbe Facing Fight of His Life in Saints Linebacker Competition

Age and injuries. In the National Football League and perhaps during this upcoming season for the New Orleans Saints, a mix of those two things over the course of due time could eventually become detrimental to both an individual's playing career and possibly even a team's fortunes.

For soon-to-be 9-year veteran Saints weakside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, it possibly could become the lethal combination that puts an end to his time in New Orleans wearing a Black and Gold uniform..

Without any question, the most disappointing element of Ellerbe's time spent in New Orleans thus far has been his inability to remain healthy. When Ellerbe actually manages to remain on the field, his impact is undeniable. In fact, it could be argued that when he is "on his game", Ellerbe might be THE BEST defender on the field at the time.

However, Ellerbe turns age 32 in November; and although it doesn't exactly make him "ancient" or too old to keep playing by any means, you also have to consider the fact that he has only played in 15 total games since joining the Saints via a trade from the Miami Dolphins (for WR Kenny Stills) during 2015 Free Agency.

Ellerbe will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this coming season; and you have to wonder just exactly how he fits into the team's future going forward.

Photo courtesy of The New Orleans Advocate

As it is, despite putting up some solid numbers last year in very limited action (4 sacks, 34 tackles) for a 2nd straight year, Ellerbe remains an enigma for most fans thanks mostly in part for his inability to remain on the field for any extended length of time.

Last year started off with promise for the former Super Bowl winning linebacker with the Baltimore Ravens back in 2012, as he managed to play in all of the first three preseason games with the Saints starting unit. But then he missed 7 of the Saints' first 8 games of the regular season due to a lingering quadriceps injury.

Eventually, Ellerbe managed to get on the field for a grand total of 9 games (starting 8 of them), which at least was 3 more than the total that he had played in all of 2015.

Ellerbe only managed to play in a grand total of 6 games (and started 4) during the 2015 season, which was why he was already in danger of not making the team last season before being approached by Saints brass in late January of 2016 and "strongly encouraged" (or else get cut) to take a reduction in pay.

Via Spotrac, Ellerbe signed a 2 year, $5 million contract with the Saints in early February of 2016, agreeing to a restructured deal that essentially saved him from the danger of facing unemployment after that injury plagued 2015 season.

Ellerbe's revised deal included an average annual salary of $2.5 million. In 2017, Ellerbe will earn a base salary of $1.7 million, a roster bonus of $750,000, a workout bonus of $50,000 and a incentive bonus of $700,000, while carrying a cap hit of $3.2 million.

The question then becomes: what are the Saints' plans for Ellerbe -- if any -- beyond 2017?

Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

The answer could very well be coming much sooner that anyone anticipated.

Ellerbe will be a part of the well-publicized "open competition" that Saints head coach Sean Payton (along with linebacker coach Mike Nolan) has said will take place this summer among every LB on the roster for the starting middle, strong side and weak side linebacker positions within the Saints' 4-3 base defense.

"Going into the season, we're going to have competition," Payton told NOLA.com / The Times Picayune Saints beat writer Herb Teope on Monday. "There won't be any assumed starting positions; there will be very few of those. We've signed players this offseason, we've drafted players to those positions this offseason and we'll try to get the best combination of players out there."

After the linebacker corps was exposed as being one of the team's biggest weaknesses during the 2014 season, the Saints in the past 2 and a half years have slowly tried to bring the position back up to par via Free Agency and the Draft; but this year it seems as if the Saints are finally close to "turning the corner".

Photo courtesy of Micheal C. Hebert

As Teope notes, the Saints already had last year's returning veterans Ellerbe, Craig Robertson, Nate Stupar, Stephone Anthony, and Travis Feeney still remaining on the roster.

But the Saints additionally have went out and very aggressively have given the LB corps a serious "makeover" this off-season; following the additions of A.J. Klein and Manti Te'o through free agency and the signing of former CFL Defensive Player of the Year Adam Bighill (from the Canadian Football League) to a reserve/future contract.

New Orleans also used last month's draft to select University of Florida linebacker Alex Anzalone in the third round, and then signed former BYU star Sae Tautu as an undrafted free agent.

Many of these players have something in common, which is that they all have versatility to play MULTIPLE positions.

Robertson, who led the linebacker corps in 2016 with a team-high 115 tackles (71 solo), can play the "Sam" / strong side position, the "Will" / weak side and the "Mike" / middle middle linebacker, where he closed the past season.

Klein can also play all 3 positions, while the all of other veterans can play at least 2 out of the 3 positions.

But the one off-season addition at linebacker that affects Ellerbe the most going forward is 3rd Round pick Alex Anzalone, who like Robertson and Klein can play ALL 3 positions and impressed coaches this past weekend at Saints Rookie Mini-Camp.

Photo courtesy of Michael C. Hebert

Going forward, it appears that Anzalone will likely be Ellerbe's main competition throughout this upcoming summer and into Training Camp and the Pre-Season in August.

The 6-foot-3, 241-pound Anzalone possesses intriguing athleticism and versatility, which is likely what Saints brass was attracted to when they selected him with the 76th overall pick of last month's 2017 NFL Draft.

He ran the 3rd-fastest 40-yard dash of any linebacker at the NFL scouting combine (4.63 seconds); and it's not a stretch to say that he was playing at a high level of success last season (53 tackles and 3 sacks) until he suffered a broken forearm during Florida's eighth game.

Anzalone is fully capable capable of being a 3-down LB and appears to be the one player that Ellerbe will have to fend off to hang on to his starting role at "Will" / weakside linebacker.

ESPN Saints beat writer Mike Triplett noted after the pick was made that Anzalone will likely play outside linebacker in the Saints’ 4-3 base package, at either "Sam" or the "Will".

Anzalone primarily played on the weakside / "Will" at Florida, but moved was moved around depending on the game plan for a specific opponent from week to week.

After this past weekend's Rookie Camp however, it does appear that Anzalone is indeed the young man who will be looking to give Ellerbe a proverbial 'run for his money' over the course of these next several months.

And although we're only in the month of May, some analysts like Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson already are projecting Anzalone to take Ellerbe's spot away from him.

Which means there isn't any doubt that Ellerbe is going to be in the proverbial "fight of his life" over the course of the next few weeks and months, starting next Tuesday (May 23rd) when the Saints report for the first day of OTA's.

Photo courtesy of Sam Monson, Pro Football Focus

The Summer of 2017 for Danelll Ellerbe will likely go down as the pivotal point of his NFL career up to this point.

With veterans Robertson, Klein and now the rookie Anzalone pressing hard to give the Saints more options at the "Will" spot, Ellerbe is going to have no choice but to "come out swinging".

If Ellerbe has any hope of surviving the fight, he'll have to prove himself capable of not only remaining healthy enough to even stay on the field to begin with; but also prove himself worthy enough of remaining within a linebacker corps that no longer appears to lack the depth that once made him a key element to its success.

And if he can't roll with the punches?

Then Dannell Ellerbe's future in NOLA could be facing the prospect of a "TKO".......

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Saints News Network Editor / Featured Columnist Barry Hirstius is a 51-year old semi-retired journalist, former New Orleans-area sports editor, and columnist previously with several sites that exclusively cover the New Orleans Saints football team. Additionally, he is a recurring guest on a variety of local Sports Talk Radio programs. Barry is also a New Orleans native who grew up as a fan of the team while attending games as a young boy at the old Tulane Stadium in the early 1970’s, originally following and now covering the team for a span of over 40 plus years. And perhaps most importantly of all: he is the Grandfather of two beautiful young girls, Jasmine and Serenity.....

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