Joe Flacco and the Baltimore Ravens are locked in contract negotiations as the beginning of free agency continues to creep closer and closer. While the Ravens focus on trying to lock up their long-term franchise quarterback, they run the risk of allowing other key pieces from their Super Bowl winning roster to move on.
Arguably the most important free agent for the Ravens is young inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe. After Ray Lewis was injured last season, Ellerbe was thrust into the spotlight as a key figure on defense. While he had spent plenty of time on the field prior to Lewis’ injury, never before in his career had he played such a prominent role.
Not only did Ellerbe fill that role, but he excelled and outplayed those around him during his team’s unexpected playoff run. For some time the now 27-year-old linebacker had promised to become a special player, but this past season was the first time he truly represented that promise on the field. In four seasons with the Ravens, the University of Georgia prospect started 14 games in the regular season and posted 182 tackles, 5.5 sacks (4.5 coming this past season), four pass deflections, one interception and one forced fumble. While he doesn’t jump off the page statistically, he does stand out on the field.
Ellerbe is 6-1 and 240 lbs, but has the speed and agility to run with tight ends in coverage. His combination of sheer size and athleticism allows him to be a balanced defender, contributing an awful lot to run stopping, pass rushing and either man or zone coverage. Ellerbe is the all-around defender who Mike Zimmer looks to fill his defense with. Coincidentally, Ellerbe perfectly fits the role that Manny Lawson just vacated for the Cincinnati Bengals.
Without Thomas Howard, the Bengals started Rey Maualuga, Lawson and rookie Vontaze Burfict for most of last season. Burfict is the only one of that group who is under contract entering next season and is expected to become the team’s starting middle linebacker after playing strongside linebacker as a rookie. Even though he didn’t play well last season and is a free agent, Maualuga is also likely to return.
However, Maualuga will switch from being the starting middle linebacker to playing strongside linebacker in the spot vacated by Burfict. By moving him to that area of the field, Maualuga would be less exposed in coverage and his natural strength and aggressive instincts would allow him to flourish. That leaves the Bengals with just one hole to fill at weakside linebacker.
Emmanuel Lamur may have impressed in patches last season, but he is still much too young and inexperienced to be trusted as a full-time starter. Lamur should see the field against more pass oriented offenses, but the Bengals need to sign someone else to play in their base defense. Ellerbe would be the perfect fit for the Bengals. In fact, should the Bengals sign Ellerbe and Lamur continues his impressive development so far into next season, then the Bengals’ nickel defense could conceivably be led by the two linebackers without the more vulnerable Maualuga or Burfict on the field.
Signing Ellerbe to fill the final starting spot on the team’s linebacking corps would be expensive, but very valuable. His physical traits allow him to be versatile enough to fill any of the three linebacker positions to good, if not great, effect while he still has room to improve the more he plays on the field. At 27, Ellerbe feasibly has more than five good years left in him also which is rare for a potential free agent addition.
The Bengals could comfortably sign the linebackers that they have in recent years or add different veterans on short-term deals. However, signing Ellerbe and Maualuga to long-term deals would allow them to lock up the unit for the foreseeable future and focus on other aspects of their team in upcoming off-seasons.